Making Policy Public: Vendor Power!

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization that uses art and visual culture to increase the quality of public participation in urban planning and community design. CUP specializes in creating interdisciplinary collaborations that bring together designers, educators, advocates, and community residents to improve urban life in New York City and beyond.

Making Policy Public (MPP) is one of CUP’s programs: a series of fold-out posters that use graphic design to explore and explain public policy. Each poster is the product of a commissioned collaboration between a designer and an advocate. This series aims to make information on public policy truly public: accessible, meaningful, and shared.

This winter, the MPP jury paired designer Candy Chang with Sean Basinski of the Street Vendor Project to work with CUP staff to demystify the rules and regulations of street vending in New York City. Here, she shares the process and product of this endeavor. In doing so, she makes a strong case for further extending the kinds of collaboration that Making Policy Public embodies, and for establishing more peer-to-peer platforms – identified by advocates and communicated through good design – for information exchange between citizens.

Stay tuned to the Omnibus for a process narrative of another Making Policy Public poster, Predatory Equity, coming up in a couple weeks.

Six pairs of sunglasses, five hand bags, two scarves, seven books, one DVD, six magazines, two hats, two umbrellas, one necklace, three photographs, one wallet, four t-shirts, one notebook, three pairs of ear muffs, eight pairs of slippers, one watch (that I still wear after five years), and countless hot dogs, pretzels, noodles, biryani, crepes, falafel, halal, dosas, rice wraps, roasted nuts, bagels, and coffee: these are some of the things I’ve consumed thanks to New York City’s 10,000+ street vendors. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized how much drama they have to endure to make an honest living.

I’m a big fan of CUP and when they posted an open call to designers and advocacy groups to work together through their Making Policy Public Program, I happily applied. Sean Basinski (The Street Vendor Project), Rosten Woo (CUP), John Mangin (CUP), and I collaborated for five months to translate NYC’s complex vending regulations into an accessible fold-out poster. CUP served as project manager and provided working stipends, research assistance, and direction throughout the process. Our goal was to make an educational resource for vendors that clarifies the rules and their rights when confronted by police officers. We also wanted the poster to serve as an advocacy tool that highlights the history of vending, personal vendor stories, and policy reforms to help develop a more just system. At the end CUP would publish several thousand copies of the poster, provide distribution support, and give 1000 copies to The Street Vendor Project for use in their advocacy and education work.


A lawyer and former vendor himself, Sean founded The Street Vendor Project in 2001 as a legal advocacy group for NYC street vendors. The organization has 700+ vendor members who collectively work together to make their voices heard. They publish reports to raise public awareness about vendor issues, file lawsuits to support vendor rights, and help vendors grow their businesses by linking them with small business training and loans. While meeting at Sean’s office to learn more about vending issues and challenges, he pulled out a box containing heaps of pink tickets they’ve accumulated from local vendors:


The violations are mostly for the physical position of vendors’ carts and tables, which must be certain distances from curbs, crosswalks, and building doors. Vendors are also frequently ticketed for not “conspicuously” wearing their vending license and for setting up shop on restricted streets. It’s an uphill battle for vendors, whose interests have often been quashed by the City’s “quality of life” crackdowns. It’s virtually impossible to get a general vending license and the estimated wait is several decades! There are tons of street restrictions, partly due to the leverage of powerful business groups. And the fines are shockingly steep at $1000 – as a comparison, a parking ticket is $65. To top it off, all these regulations are buried in documents full of intimidating jargon and heinous text formatting that would make even the most patient person cry. Here’s an example page from the City’s vending regulations book:

Snap! Can the City be ticketed for bad formatting? These resources not only make it confusing for vendors but for the government too. Sean pointed out several tickets where even the police officers got the rules wrong. And worse yet, what if English is your second language? Ever since the first Jewish, Italian and Irish pushcart markets formed in lower Manhattan in the 1880s, immigrants have made up a large part of the vending workforce. Its low startup costs, independence, and flexibility make it a traditional first stop for small business entrepreneurs. Today over 80% of NYC vendors in lower Manhattan are born outside the U.S., particularly Bangladesh, China, Senegal and Afghanistan. Seeing a document like this makes me wonder how anyone has the moxie to vend at all!

We learned more at The Street Vendor Project’s monthly meeting where vendors join forces to inform each other about current issues and take an active role in making changes. City officials are proposing that vendors can never leave their cart (who needs bathroom breaks?) and that all vendors must display an unobstructed 36″ x 18″ sign that displays all their appropriate licenses. This would take up serious space on their size-restricted tables. Vendor and board member Larry McDonald said, “Forget about your goods. You’re going to be selling the sign!”

I also spoke with individual street vendors like Munnu, who sells hot dogs and pretzels at the corner of Lafayette and Reade. He moved to NYC from Bangladesh and has been a street vendor for 17 years, but it hasn’t been easy. “One time I got a ticket because my jacket covered my license, and then I have to pay $1000 fine,” he said, “Do you have $1000 in your pocket? You don’t have it! I don’t have it! This hand makes money and the other hand finishes it very fast. How do they think I can give so much?”

While learning about the challenges vendors face – and enjoying the best burritos, biryani, arepas and more at the annual Vendy Awards – we started thinking about the content of the poster. How much would be directed towards street vendors as a much-needed resource, and how much would be an educational/advocacy tool about street vendors and regulation reform? How much would be about clarifying the convoluted regulations into clear graphics and how much would be about showing just how convoluted it currently is?

After we established a general scope of content, I made “wire frame” mockups and marked each page of the fold-out poster with titles and image placeholders. This gave us a foundation to discuss the order, prominence, and general layout of the content. We placed vendor-targeted information in the first folds so vendors can easily access it on a day-to-day basis and within the small confines of some carts. We also started thinking about how to make the rules as pictorial as possible and include text translations in Bengali, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

The fully-opened poster was devoted to a few elements, including personal stories from local vendors, historical background (NYC vending started when four Jewish peddlers set up pushcarts along Hester Street), fun facts (Jerry Seinfeld was once a vendor, and Bloomingdale’s, D’Agostino and Macy’s all started as pushcarts), and recommended regulation reforms (lift the license caps, increase street access, reduce the fines, and reform administration and enforcement). While this spread was geared towards educating non-vendors, Sean noted its equal value to vendors so they could feel less informal and take pride in a profession that has been so integral to New York’s history.

I tried different visual styles, from old world LES charm to photographs of actual objects on the sidewalks. The guys were open to anything that best facilitated the content, and Rosten championed as much diagrammatic information as possible. Sean made a good point that, whatever the style, the poster should have a sense of “authority” so vendors could use it as a trustworthy-looking resource when dealing with police officers.

I eventually landed on a friendly Chris Ware-inspired style and had good times illustrating everything from hot dog stands to former Mayor Ed Koch. I printed a lot of homemade versions so we had hard copies to peruse and mark up during meetings. Here’s a look at the poster-in-progress at three stages:

Over the course of our bi-weekly discussions, many elements evolved. Things that were initially little (sidebar of fun facts) became a centerpiece. Things that got tossed to the wayside (John’s extensive timeline research) became useful fodder integrated into the policy reforms. And things that were once separate (vendor types, personal stories, policy reforms) became one coherent cityscape.

We got feedback from vendors about clarity, content, symbols, language and text translations. We tried to challenge all our assumptions – is “>” a universal symbol for “greater than”? Is a green check symbol the opposite of a red x’d circle? Are the abbreviations for feet, inches, and meters clear? Here’s the final version:


Vendor Power! Hopefully this fold-out poster not only saves vendors some headaches but allows the city to direct its energy (and our tax money) towards more pressing issues. In order to put this information directly in the hands of people who need it the most, CUP organized a citywide distribution event where volunteers handed out free copies to vendors across the city. Unfortunately I was way up in Helsinki, but here’s some photos of the big day from CUP:


And here are some first-hand thoughts from John:

“The poster went public with a citywide distribution extravaganza on a Saturday in late March. We got about 20 volunteers to take the posters to vendors on the job. Cheikh Fall, a vendor himself, helped us map the city’s vendor-dense areas and estimate numbers. The weather was iffy, but that wouldn’t matter, he said – April rent was due soon and the vendors would be out in force.

The volunteers met us downtown to pick up Google maps and a big stack of posters. From there they fanned out to Jackson Heights, Fulton Mall, Grand Concourse, Harlem – about 20 neighborhoods in all. (We talked about a Staten Island toe-touch, but it didn’t quite happen.) We put the poster in the hands of about 1,000 vendors. Reactions ranged from enthusiastic to what-took-you-so-long? — more than a few related stories of run-ins with cops or storeowners when the poster could’ve come in handy.”

After working on this project I have a new appreciation for NYC’s vendors (and my $5 watch) and I learned a lot by working with CUP and the Street Vendor Project. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is critical for combining approaches, looking at things differently and developing new solutions. As an innovative non-profit, CUP devotes energy to facilitating all kinds of creative collaborations in urban education, from high school curricula to educational exhibitions. As an advocate, Sean devotes energy to spreading the word, organizing action and helping others understand their rights. And as a graphic designer, I devote energy to organizing content and making information more accessible and engaging. Thanks to CUP, we were all able to work together and combine our strengths to help develop tools towards citizen empowerment. These are the kinds of projects many designers and advocacy groups want to tackle together but lack the funding, resources or connections to carry out. How can we extend systems such as CUP’s MPP program to better facilitate these partnerships?

What are the pros and cons to doing projects like these by way of grants, government funding, or corporate sponsorships? Are there other ways we can provide value and support to everyone involved? And how can we design the situations in which existing resources, people, and energies can come together to form new and empowering networks? MPP is one model; what are the others out there? What are the relative merits of the strong but flexible structure CUP encourages, and what are the benefits of self-organizing systems? I’d love to hear from other designers, advocates and other kinds of public servants about alternative systems and structures.

No one knows the ins and outs of vendor-hood more than experienced vendors themselves. And designers and advocates need the tools to join forces as well. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, should we try to extend this process and provide progressive peer-to-peer platforms for vendors – as well as designers, advocates and other kinds of public servants – to inform, support and collaborate with one other?

For more information about Vendor Power!:

Download a PDF or purchase a copy of the poster at the Making Policy Public website.

Read coverage of the project in The New York Times.

See sample pages at the Street Vendor Project website.  The Street Vendor Project is part of the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation and advocacy to various marginalized groups of New Yorkers.

Candy Chang is an artist, designer, and urban planner in Helsinki, Finland. She likes to make information more accessible and engaging through design and the creative use of public space. She also likes to improve the ways people share information.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Mohammed Mudassir Azeemi May 6, 2009

My God Father won the Vendy Award 2006! Sammy Halal Food rocks!

Elizabeth May 6, 2009

What an inspiring project and story! It’s wonderful to read applications of design, wherein the content truly drives the form, and the purpose is not just another sales piece.

Erik Brandt May 7, 2009

A most inspiring story, congratulations!

MIMI May 7, 2009

this is awesome!

rico May 25, 2009

inspiring and very useful!

Artseenchicago June 1, 2009

Hi. There is an Anne Elizabeth Moore exhibition at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book and Paper Arts June 19!

Tommy July 15, 2009

Hi, I wanted to start a small business in food vending. I recently close down my business in retailing because the rent is too high and no one is buying. I also lost a great amount of money and owing debt at the moment. Since Food Vending is low investment so i can start up all over again, I need to know what is the vending stand, cart or trailer size regulation in NYC. I’m also confuse about licensing and permit. One of my friend’s mom have the cart license which she haven’t use for 3 year but been renewing and paying it annually. Now she willing to let me use it but i need to know what other permit or license I need or (ID badge). Is hard to find the information. I even visited 42 broadway consumer affair about this but they were very rude and didn’t even wanted to answer my questions. They told me to find out myself and when i’m ready go back to them for any application. Thank You in advance for taking your time reading this.

cold July 22, 2009

thank you very much and God bless you
Sean and his team members,,,,,,,,,from Bangladesh…

Robert Muhammad August 12, 2009

I am a disabled vet that is vending for himself. I need help with information on how I can get loans to get merchandise for my table. I have problems with the Police…but I am overcoming them by explaining the rules and regulations. I just need to know how to get more merchandise on credit…Can you help me with this?

Cassim Shepard August 12, 2009

Hi Robert, a good place to start is to consult the frequently asked questions at the Street Vendor Project:

Good luck!

m November 26, 2009

totally inspiring. thanks for making nyc better. xx