When I was a little kid, I used to love the street fairs on the Upper West Side. In the early spring, the Daily News would hand out printed one-sheeters featuring the Yankee schedule, and I’d follow along for the season. Plus, those funnel cakes were great. My parents and I — sometimes with my aunt and uncle along as well — would stroll the fairs and soaking in the street life.
Somewhere along the way, though, over the past three decades, New York City’s street fairs have grown to be intolerably repetitive events with no relationship to the neighborhood and little in the way of overall utility. On Sunday afternoon, the street fair came to me, and I obliged. I awoke to the sights of merchants constructing their white tents along Park Slope’s 7th Ave., and I ended up spending about an hour walking the gathering called, for some reason, the Seventh Heaven Festival.
My girlfriend and I did our best to make the most of it. We ate only from local restaurants and skipped past the sausage stands, zeppole booths and mozzarepa dealers that have become the hallmarks of these city-wide fairs. Still, we were hard-pressed to find anything of value. Outside our apartment were stands hawking allegedly hand-made baskets, $5 dresses, cut-rate sunglasses with designer names attached, tube socks and sheets. Down the block were people also selling allegedly hand-made baskets, $5 dresses, cut-rate sunglasses with designer names attached, tube socks and sheets. The crowning moment came when a booth bearing the sign “Interesting Items” promised to sell us scissors, tweezers, and magnifying glasses. Never have I been less interested.
My not-so-newfound boredom with street fairs isn’t something that has come with age and experience. The city over, these things are the same, and even those street fairs with a modicum of individuality — the Atlantic Antic comes to mind — have seen booth space taken over by discount merchants selling a bunch of junk no one needs or wants. As I surveyed the scene (and later spotted a B67 bus trying to wind its way down 6th Ave.), I marveled at the street fair’s complete takeover of normal New York City life. Local businesses are literally crowded out by tents of remainder goods too cheap for Target; pedestrian life is interrupted; and transit services are diverted to less optimal routes. Why exactly do we put up with these things?
Over the past few years, New Yorkers have lived through a remarkable transformation in public space. As Clyde Haberman profiles in today’s Times, NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has led an effort to restore street space to people. After decades of prioritizing cars and eliminating sidewalk space and room for people, New York planners have tried to make it work for everyone. We’ve seen pedestrian plazas grow in popularity, and a new City Bench program brings seats to areas where a fire hydrant or curb were the best options around. And yet street fairs persevere.
The problems with street fairs are well documented. Seven years ago, the Center for an Urban Future called upon the city to rethink street fairs, and in subsequent testimony before City Council, Center officials blamed the monopolistic set-up of the street fair structure. One company runs nearly every single street fair in the city, and the choices they make are mind-numbingly repetitive and boring. Three years ago, the Center followed up with a series of suggestions for improving street fairs that would have them look more like a greenmarket/holiday market/Brooklyn Flea/Red Hook Food vendor set-up than the current iteration. The plans sound good, but policy changes remain few and far between.
I don’t have any great answer for the street fair problem. Yet, as I strolled down 7th Ave. today, I wondered what the point of it all was. If street views disappeared tomorrow, would anyone in New York City miss them? I don’t think so.