Corona Plaza has become a magnet for street vendors serving Queens’ Latino residents. But when the vendor population spiked with the pandemic, the plaza’s vending ecosystem — the balanced, daily choreography between sellers, customers, suppliers, and more — became strained. Demand for space increased, litter and clutter multiplied, and opportunities for disputes between vendors mounted. From police seizures of a fresh produce cart in the Bronx, to a BID sequestering sidewalk access with oversized planters in Midtown, New York City’s street vendors are used to getting pushed around. Due in part to the City’s nearly 40-year resistance toward increasing the cap of mobile food vending permits, as well as luxury real estate’s routine aversion to the trade, streetside selling — overwhelmingly represented by an immigrant workforce — is a perilous job marked by risk of ticketing and fines, submission to complex rules and regulations, and polarizing debates around who gets access to public space.
For over a decade, community-based groups like the Street Vendor Project (SVP) have stepped in to provide vendors with emergency legal support and services. But more than a shoulder to lean on, SVP has amassed a membership of more than 2,000 vendor members who year after year show up to support policies expanding, legalizing, and empowering street vending. When tensions started to rise at Corona Plaza, vendors, with the help of SVP, worked together to establish set meeting times, space allocations, and cleaning schedules, redefining the plaza’s vending network on their own shared terms.
Pedro Cruz Cruz first came to Corona Plaza through an architecture studio at the Spitzer School of Architecture that asked students to observe how architecture may “build culture” and participate in systems of social support and solidarity. For over a year, Cruz has spoken with vendors and worked with staff at SVP and New Immigrant Community Empowerment to understand how vendors make the space of the plaza — critical to their livelihoods but designed for other uses and users — work for them. More than feedback used to inform his own designs, his conversations with the vendors and organizers developed into a body of ethnographic research that makes the case for a collective, fluid approach to citymaking. Below, he shares insights from this work into the plaza’s physical and social organization.
“This is . . . 103rd Street, Corona Plaza.” The doors open and you start to hear a mixture of bachata, cumbia, and reggaeton. The music gets louder as you descend from the elevated tracks of the 7 train. Once you’ve exited the station, it’s almost impossible to deviate from the tunnel of vending tables, carts, and umbrellas that has formed in the plaza just outside. Then it hits: wafting smells of grilled meat, burnt corn, and steaming stew. Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Guatemalan cuisine surrounds you: cooking on charcoal and gas stoves, skewered on sticks, baked in casseroles, marinating on rotisseries. The race is on. Who will you buy from? Who has the best freshly cooked beef kabobs or ready-to-eat plates on-the-go? Who has the most generous portions? Who’s the cheapest?
The imprint of street vending on Corona Plaza has not always been as pronounced as it is today. In 2019, the number of regular vendors here was around 30; but since the start of the pandemic, layoffs in industries such as hospitality, construction and housekeeping sparked an influx of new people selling at the plaza. There are now over 100 vendors on site. Carts and stands offering food, pottery, flowers, clothing, and fruits are now often joined by sellers of sanitizers and face protective gear.
"There are more people here using transit, more pedestrians. There are also more Hispanics, and that’s why I decided to come here. I tried working on 90th Street and you can’t sell there like you can here. This plaza is already becoming famous because people know there are so many stands. People come from the Bronx, they come from Brooklyn — for example, three families said they came from Maryland one weekend because they saw videos of a lot of vendors here. And that's why I decided to set up here."
– Mariela, crafts vendor
Every morning, vendors set up stalls as their helpers unchain chairs and tables from the flower bed fences that surround the plaza. Brick-and-mortar shop owners roll up their storefront gates, delivery trucks unload their produce, domino players set up tables below the marquee sign of the old Plaza Theater, and music from an array of speakers competes with Bible preachers at the plaza’s main stage. Since its inception in 2012, Corona Plaza has strived to be a place for all.
Before it was repaved and redesigned as a plaza, this site was a service road dominated by the many independent moving van and truck services that cater to the ever-changing populations of Queens. This central spot for these vehicles and their customers became an unsafe area for the crowds of people coming in and out of the subway. In 2011, the Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC) — galvanized by coordinated support from local community members, councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and the Queens Museum — won funds through the New York City Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program, a feature of the Bloomberg-era PlanNYC that works to reimagine underutilized streetscapes through partnerships with local community groups. This cohort sought to transform the service road into a safe and accessible public space which would be culturally representative of the area’s predominately Latino community.
Initially outfitted with temporary features and furniture (a gravel surface, plastic planters, and movable metal chairs and tables), the plaza’s 30,000-square-foot, permanent redesign, completed in 2018, now includes paved walkways, a performance space, built-in seating, and in-ground shrubs and trees. Today, QEDC, alongside the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, provides ongoing plaza maintenance, and the Queens Museum hosts programming for live music, performance, and the arts there.
For vendors, the plaza represents a critical piece of urban infrastructure which sustains their source of income. The new physical design of the plaza has certainly turned an otherwise dull space into a vibrant community amenity; however, this arrangement did not take into account the outlets, sinks, or storage spaces necessary to cater to one of the largest street vending scenes in Queens. Instead, vendors use temporary coverage and improvised structures to make the space their own. Unlike prefabricated, identical plaza stands, street vendors construct and decorate their stands the way they see fit. In most cases, storage, cooking, and food service take place in easily movable, DIY shopping carts and stands. Fluorescent, hand-drawn signs and flags display a transnational sense of place, language, food, and memory. Through alterations to their pushcarts, vendors also adapt to changing environmental conditions. Patio umbrellas provide shade and protection against rain and pigeons, while awnings and canopies help businesses establish a more solid footprint. During the winter months, plastic tarp enclosures allow running grills and stoves to generate enough heat to keep warm. Heavy concrete blocks and Home Depot buckets filled with cement serve as foundations to define territory while holding off spontaneous gusts of winds.
To make up for a lack of access to water taps, electricity, and permanent storage facilities, vendors bring in outside resources to fulfill their needs: Water gallons and gas tanks allow for cooking and cleaning, while generators power lighting at night. Offsite kitchens, often in restaurants, are used to prepare hot meals. Many vendors make two to three trips on foot in order to bring merchandise on and off the plaza.
Parts of the train station itself, such as spaces below the stairs leading up the platform, help protect stands from the elements and demarcate space between pedestrians and vendors. Other, more permanent services in the neighborhood anchor the vendors’ carts and stands. Banks and ATMs allow customers easy access to cash for food purchases, nearby markets and fruit stands provide additional inventory in the case of any ingredient shortage, and two public bathrooms help provide relief to those working long hours outside.
The highest-traffic spots for vendors to set up shop are those which people must pass through, such as subway entrances. Such strategic siting physically choreographs how people move through the plaza, creating the tunnel-like experience of the market. Yet the City requires vendors to be at a distance greater than 20 feet from the entrance of any building, ten feet away from a crosswalk, and allow for only a maximum distance of 18 inches of space between the curb of the sidewalk and the cart or table (where the vendor stands) — using any further space could result in a fine of $1,000. Due to the open nature of public plazas, a lot of these regulations can be bypassed, though on days where Corona Plaza is filled with street vendors, conflicts can still arise.
“I wish there were a little more room for people to pass. We cannot park our carts on the corners because we have to be more than 20 feet away from them. There’s a community of street vendors that helps us. They come once a month, and they showed us a booklet with all the required distances and the regulations.”
– Gabriela, birria tacos vendor
“We look for the spots that are most central, like the plazas. I had stands in different spots, but I saw this place by the bus stop. I had a lot of vending spots on Junction Boulevard because I was trying to find a place close to the train, but thanks to God, I found my place and that’s how I got here.”
– Fernando, masks vendor
A cohesive, albeit complex, social ecosystem has emerged out of Corona Plaza’s everyday tangle of vendors, customers, and passersby. With help from member-organizers and staff from the Street Vendor Project (SVP), vendors have created a network of solidarity they can call on to ensure individual survival and collective prosperity.
Street vending without proper licensure and permits can be dangerous and unpredictable. Having witnessed goods being confiscated by police, and having been handed countless tickets for selling without a permit, the street vendors of Corona Plaza understand how their collective interest at times surpasses individual competition.
“95 percent of vendors are immigrants and a lot of them don’t have legal status here. If there is immigration action taken by the federal government, they are extremely vulnerable because they are already out on the streets. There are also barriers that are in place for street vendors. It's very difficult to become one right now and follow all the rules and regulations that mainly have to do with licensing and permitting. The city will often ease the property away from them, throw it in the garbage and make it very difficult to get it back. And you can get arrested, which thankfully doesn’t happen much although sometimes we see it.”
– Matthew Shapiro, Legal Director, Street Vendor Project
Through established community agreements, the vendors have started to take ownership over maintenance of the space: They schedule trash pickup times, delineate invisible vending lots, and respect each other’s workspaces.
“We respect each other. If someone sells in a spot, nobody takes his place away from him. Because at a certain point, whoever got there first got the spot. But thank God it’s not like that now. If that’s your spot, it’s respected.”
– Ilario, ice cream vendor
This model for sharing public space is based primarily on alliances between vendors and their neighbors. Such cultivation of trust may determine when and where a street vendor will be able to sell, and how long the vendor will be able to stay in a particular location. A connection to a wholesale market could get you a monthly tab to manage your product expenses; a social tie with a restaurant nearby can mean a place to use a bathroom; an agreement with other vendors could help secure a spot, a lookout, or financial resource in desperate times.
"That’s what the group here is for, so we can help each other when there’s a problem. Let's say the police are bothering folks on Johnson Street, and someone from the group here sees something there — they send a message and we are alerted. A week ago, I think someone from a local store called because a vendor was selling in front of his business, and the city came to give him a ticket. Someone messaged him and then everybody knew what was going on.”
– Quesadilla vendor (anonymous)
"We try to help each other out as much as we can. The other vendor over there and I stay until midnight cleaning because we want to be able to take advantage of the space. The better maintained and organized the space, the more people come and the more we sell. I'm a working man: I have a lot of tools, and I even made my own cart. So when somebody asks for my help, I help in any way that I can; and when I need help, they’re also there for me. My neighbor lends me his motorcycle sometimes when I need to go get gas for the generator.”
– Camilo, agua fresca vendor
Vendors, along with SVP staff, have also drawn “mental maps” to help facilitate the sharing of space. Because of the precarious nature of street vending, and the many factors that affect when and if you can sell at a certain spot, invisible lot divisions are constantly redrawn in an attempt to understand the vendors’ boundaries. The aim of these maps is not to manage spots like real estate, but rather to inform existing and new vendors about the culture of respect that exists in the plaza in order to help foster trust.
“Come on a Saturday if you want to see how crowded it gets, and how there’s conflict here. Everyone wants to claim a spot, but many of us don’t have permits yet. Organizers from the Street Vendor Project advise those of us who already have spots. We even made a list and a map of where we are located in the plaza. It’s not concrete, but it helps us communicate and ease conflict with each other and the new vendors that come. Still, new people come, and ask if they can vend. We ask them if they have permits, and they say they don’t, but they're hungry and want to sell something to make money, and I tell them to ‘Go on, then, set up.’"
– Fernando, masks vendor
The initial wave of the Covid-19 pandemic brought more people outside, where large open spaces provide room for social distancing. Even so, Corona Plaza suffered from a decrease in foot traffic that affected the economic livelihoods of many vendors. At the same time, an overall increase in street vending, due to jobs lost in other industries, created some tension between new and existing vendors.
“I worked in a restaurant. My dad worked in construction and my mom babysat. We all worked here in Corona. Then we lost our jobs. This was the epicenter of the pandemic. So my mom looked for work cooking; that’s what she did in Mexico. My grandparents worked under tarps — they are like our tents here — and they went to small towns and sold food at fairs. My grandmother taught my mother everything she knew about cooking, and about overcoming obstacles. It was my mom’s idea to turn to vending to get ahead. Because no one had a job anymore, and everything was closed, we dedicated ourselves to quesadillas.”
– Quesadilla vendor (anonymous)
“Since the pandemic, our earnings have gone down. It's like starting over from scratch. Early in the pandemic, when there were no people on the street, we did deliveries just to survive. Our business depends on people on the street. There was nothing else I could do.”
– Yogurt vendor (anonymous)
Places like Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights and Downtown Flushing also saw greater numbers of street vendors during the peak of the pandemic, an increase which continues to this day. In the past, Business Improvement District (BID) programs have tried banning street vending without permits out of purported concern for sidewalk overcrowding. Post-pandemic, BID partners and established restaurants once again began arguing about sidewalk congestion, a claim also used by the city to avoid issuing more street vending permits. According to the vendors and organizers interviewed here, the combination of all these factors proved to be detrimental to their economic prosperity during an otherwise challenging time.
“A reason the City hasn’t been hospitable in increasing the number of vending permits is the argument of congestion in public space: that our public space is precious, and if we have more vendors, no one is going to be able to walk anywhere. Well, now with the pandemic, we see how false that is. Within weeks, the City granted 10,000 permits for restaurants to use the sidewalks and everything is fine. People are still walking; there’s enough room. Now, we see restaurants being street vendors, and even retail stores are allowed to use the sidewalks under the new Open Storefronts program. We support all those initiatives 100 percent, but vendors have been doing this for years and have not gotten any room.”
– Matthew Shapiro, Legal Director, SVP
In January 2021, after years of steadfast campaigning by SVP, their member vendors, and allies, the City Council passed Local Law 1116. For the first time since 1983, this legislation increases the number of street vending permits by 4,000, with the intent to release 400 per year over the next ten years. While advocates celebrate this historic win, this number of permits is still a drop in the bucket in light of the realistic need: SVP estimates that 20,000 vendors currently sell in NYC streets and plazas.
“The new city law is a victory. It shows we can win. But it’s not a very broad victory, because the new permits are only for people who sell food. They don’t benefit our comrades in the plaza who sell merchandise. The legislation we’ve won at a municipal level is not enough, but it’s a model to follow and to build on. Imagine how much more we can win if more people get involved and organized. In our campaign for state legislation, we’re fighting to include people who sell merchandise, too."
– Eric Nava-Pérez, Member Organizer, SVP
As an architectural designer, I couldn’t help but speculate about different spatial interventions while hearing from the street vendors of Corona Plaza and those who support their work. I’m not the first to have considered such ideas. Could streets be redesigned to make space for vending? Could their carts be redesigned as permanent stalls outfitted for gas, water, and electricity needs? Could plazas be retrofitted to provide the infrastructure that vendors need? Could the addition of other permeant marketplaces work to help calm conflicts of interest in a place such as Corona Plaza? However, none of these design ideas provide real solutions without interrupting the networks of self-reliance and other micro-economies that sustain the livelihood of the vendors. Instead, the result of this ethnographic documentation is concerned with something else: the relationships that are already there.
“I think every party involved in the plaza would benefit from having a space just to store things. To store their belongings, their tables, their chairs, their carts. Just that would be incredible.”
– Eric Nava-Pérez, Member Organizer, SVP
Vendors know what they need. Many of them have sustained themselves through self-run organizations, and have helped transform places of leisure into sites of work, community, culture, and identity. Many of the interviews featured in this article came from within the Spanish-speaking community of vendors, but it is important to highlight that other communities may have their own specific needs, goals, and interests. The City must start making space for vendors across these different communities that can be maintained fluidly, with room to grow and adapt to new changes.
The form of the city should not be seen as absolute and rigid, but should rather reflect the diversity of the city itself, and be culturally-responsive to the changing conditions and relations of our times. To grow and build culture, rather than control it, is to help cultivate more resilient, equitable, and meaningful communities. With the growing need for public spaces as the city reopens amid the pandemic, certain “informal,” contested, and shared uses could start becoming symbols of identity in neighborhoods where dignity is fostered and enhanced through collective connectivity.
Author’s note: I would like to thank my mentors and professors, Nandini Bagchee and Vyjayanthi Rao, as well as the great staff of the Queens Memory Project for providing advice and training while conducting many of these interviews.
All photographs by Pedro Cruz Cruz