Why the world needs vendors

Venice Beach, California

The trouble started last summer when a laid-off construction worker set up a hot dog stand on the South Side of my current city, Bethlehem, Pa. Some loved it, some hated it, and a six-month debate on vendors ensued. The conclusion came last night when City Council voted to severely curtail street vending.

My time spent traveling tells me this is a big mistake. Taking away vendors masks the true face of a city.

Vendors are ambassadors, the front lines, the people most likely to approach both visitors and locals. They provide a link between long-time residents and first-time guests by bringing both to the same counter. The vendors’ identities often mirror this mediating role, falling somewhere in-between as immigrants, migrants, or simply non-traditional folks.

The vendors I’ve met while traveling are more than faceless hawkers, buskers and actors. They’re the tired old men offering the opportunity to give someone a spontaneous rose. The breakdancers on the Brooklyn-bound L train. The maybe-made-of-metal man. The rescuer bringing umbrellas to the unprepared. The savior with — finally — a bottle of water.

I suspect my City Council fears an out-of-control influx of vendors. Every unemployed person in a 30-mile radius rushing in with laser pointers and slide whistles. Maybe, but I’ve seen out-of-control vending and it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s called India, and it’s fantastic.

India would be practically empty without street vendors. Nothing makes a city crackle like a sidewalk offering cashews, combs, calculator watches, vibrators, socks, binoculars, bangles, blessings, corn, haircuts and shaves, typed letters, sealed parcels, shined shoes, invigorated scalps and buffalo milk (for starters).

But no matter. That scene won’t grow in Bethlehem for a while, because it’s not a teeming city.

Looked at from the reverse angle, vendors are an X-ray of their community. From Osama posters to banana baskets, they make both underlying sickness and steady health obvious. Any city that seeks to ban vending must be afraid of what its vendors will reveal.

How have street vendors shown you the truth about places?

Photo “Venice Beach, California” by szeke via Flickr.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | December 23, 2009
Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind

3 Responses to “Why the world needs vendors”

  1. Paul Says:

    I am pretty sure, in India, they don’t even know what vending is. In some countries ( including Russia) street vending is a means of surviving for a lot of people ( and has nothing to do with being “an ambassador”). And you are right, they are “the face of the city”. The sad, ugly, pitiful face. Old grandmothers selling plastic bags and flower seeds, war veterans selling their medals, street hustlers selling just jacked goods…
    There is a reason we are not that liberal about street vendors in US. We don’t want to show our face…

  2. Brett Says:

    Hm, yeah, maybe ‘ambassador’ has too positive a connotation, failing to reflect the daily strife and sacrifice of this line of survival.

  3. Tom Says:

    I agree! Vendors bring life and color to a local area. i liken vendors to treasure hunts, you never know what you’re going to find at the next one. I believe that downtown market areas for vendors should be encouraged in any small or large city!