Managing Street Vending through Uncertainty

Authors: Ryan Devlin*, John Jay College
Topics: Urban Geography, Legal Geography, Planning Geography
Keywords: Uncertainty, Street Vending, Informality
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Jackson, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Regulations governing street vending in New York City are a mix of local laws, agency rules, New York State law, and Federal case law. The result of this complex legal genealogy is a knot of regulations that is convoluted and at times contradictory. This creates situation at the level of street in which regulations are difficult to follow and difficult to enforce in any sort of clear and consistent manner. How then is street vending actually managed on the sidewalks of New York? Using on-the-ground ethnographic methods, this paper demonstrates how the opacity of law leads various actors, including police, private security forces, Business Improvement District personnel, store owners, and vendors themselves, to utilize the condition of uncertainty to manage public space in an informal way—on a case-by-case, block by block basis. The sum total of these street-level negotiations creates a landscape of street vending where most vendors are excluded from high value areas of the city, and those that remain cling to tenuous rights to space This paper shows how informality is not a condition characterized by the absence of law, but can exist as an important mechanism of spatial organization that interacts with formal law in complex ways By providing a clearer understanding of how power operates in the spaces between laws as written and laws as enforced/experienced, this paper responds to the call from multiple scholars to add ethnographic detail to our understanding of the interaction between informality, the state, and urban space.

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