Few lawyers know more about the legal woes of New York City pushcart vendors than Sean Basinski.
The founder and director of the Street Vendor Project (online at streetvendor.org), Basinski actually worked in the business for nine months before attending law school; he sold burritos on the corner of 52nd Street and Park Avenue.
Seeded with money from Yale University, his one-man practice is now part of New York’s Urban Justice Organization. And to the best of his knowledge, it’s the only one of its kind. “I get calls from people all around the country, mostly other vendors, asking about us. But few other cities have enough vendors to make organizing them worthwhile,” he says.
On any given day, Basinski says, the city’s police officers cite mobile food vendors for violations such as insufficient distance from the curb and inadequate licensing.
These tickets—many of which are intended to harass, Basinski says—carry penalties of up to $1,000 or can result in the confiscation of merchandise or the pushcarts themselves.
(The video chronicle of one pushcart vendor’s experience with police officers in Times Square can be viewed online.)
Most pushcart vendors cannot afford a lawyer to represent them before the city’s administrative courts. That’s where Basinski and his Street Vendor Project come in.
Basinski likens his group more to a union than a legal aid organization. The SVP charges an annual membership fee of $100 in exchange for legal services and outreach programs. So far he has 630 members, and he hopes to recruit more of the estimated 10,000 street vendors who work the five boroughs of New York City.
Basinski’s work doesn’t stop at legal assistance. He is also the man behind the Vendy Awards, which showcase the often underappreciated culinary talents of the city’s street vendors. Winners of the third annual Vendy Awards were to be announced in late September.
To see a list of some of the finest food on the streets of New York City, check out streetvendor.org.