The Big Apple Food Fight

New effort to clear the streets of Manhattan creates controversy.

What could be so bad about New York City pretzels, Italian sausages, and good old-fashioned hot dogs in a bun? New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says quite a lot.

As part of his Quality-of-Life campaign, the Republican mayor has ordered street vendors who sell everything from steamy potato knishes to sizzling shish kabobs removed from 144 city blocks, many of them among the busiest in the city. He says the peddlers cause excessive sidewalk congestion and violate sanitary codes.

"It's ridiculous," says Aura Montanez, a Salvadoran mother who sells downtown from her food cart emblazoned with the words "Gloria's Mexican Food."

"We feed people good food. We work hard. We pay taxes."

Such arguments have not impressed City Hall. Mayor Giuliani's gripe with one of the Big Apple's most recognizable and popular traditions comes after similar battles with the city's taxi drivers, and the hundreds of pedestrians who routinely jaywalk.

Reelected by a wide margin largely because of his success in fighting crime, Giuliani most recent crusade to clean up the city has piqued both vendors and the thousands of people who rely on them each day for a cheap meal.

Just days after the Giuliani administration announced the directive, some 800 peddlers took the day off and marched on City Hall.

Standing in line to buy an Italian sausage with onions, Mike Hollander, a salesman, questioned the social impact of eliminating street vendors from many of the city's main gather points.

"These folks are what New York is all about. They're the living fiber of this place," he says. "Giuliani should stop going after the little guy. Without this job what are these folks going to do?"

The sidewalk sellers are a throwback to the turn-of-the-century era of immigrant New York, when peddlers were as common as lamp posts and the pushcart or horse-driven barrow was often the first step toward making it here.

Forced to defend his latest attack on a vocal yet politically unprotected group, Giuliani's administration maintains that it doesn't want to put the pushcarts out of business, only control where they can go. Jack Deacy, an administration spokesman, says the measure fits into Giuliani's effort to reduce crime, clean city parks, and put order into street life.

"This is the most densely populated city in the country," he says. "We're not against pushcarts but they have to be regulated like any other group."

Regulation is one thing but eviction is another, counters Jeffrey Cicio, head of the 700-member Big Apple Food Vendors Association. Mr. Cicio points out that the vendors are already prohibited from working on 500 city blocks. He insists that the congestion issue is a smokescreen for business groups and real-estate interests that view the vendors as a nuisance.

"The fact is there is no serious pedestrian problem. The real issue is that the business groups and real estate interests want us out," explains Cicio, whose plans to launch an Internet Web site to bolster support.

Cicio, who owns 200 pushcarts himself, says the 3,000 licensed pushcarts make hardly a dent in the sales of the 18,000 restaurants in the five boroughs.

Tucked in between the big buildings and the street peddlers, modest-sized delicatessen owners such as Nick Hryckowian charge that the pushcarts unfairly compete with restaurants that pay rent and are regularly tested for sanitation. "If you don't have any overhead you can undercut the competition," he says.

IN an attempt to find a compromise to the latest New York quarrel, City Councilman Kenneth Fisher has introduced legislation to assign vendors specific spots on city sidewalks, placing fewer vendors on each street but opening up more streets to sidewalk sales.

The budding Hot Dog Wars aside, Mr. Fisher, a Democrat, says he would like to see Giuliani demonstrate more concern about the city's housing shortage and less with the food that thousands of New Yorkers love to eat each day.

"We should be spending much more time, for instance, controlling waste and fraud in government," says Fisher. "But Mr. Giuliani seems to be more comfortable with these kind of fights."

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