Jun
16

Thoughts on New York City’s boring street fairs

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Without street fairs, how would New Yorkers get their MozzArepa fix? (Photo by flickr user Joe Shlabotnik)

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.



48 Responses to “Thoughts on New York City’s boring street fairs”

  1. D in Bushwick says:

    San Gennaro was my first NYC street fair and I quickly realized street fairs in other neighborhoods were absolutely no different.
    You walk down it’s length, decide which place is acceptable to buy some food, eat it and then leave. The businesses hidden behind all the look-alike stands must see a decline in their business just like with parades which seem to happen every 2-3 weeks in this city.
    Perhaps they are boring and pointless but there are always lots of people who come from all over and I would take that any day over suburban NJ and LI shopping mall anesthesia…

    • VLM says:

      You have very strange black-and-white viewpoints sometimes. The outcome of no street fairs isn’t suburban shopping mall anesthesia. It’s a vibrant street life that isn’t taken over by lowest-common-denominator crap. In fact, I’d say NYC’s current street fairs are closer to suburban mall hell than anything else in NYC that isn’t a mall in its own right.

      • SEAN says:

        Done San Gennaro & it is fun, but the mobs take a lot of the enjoyment out of it as large crowds make minuverability extremely difficult & down right anoying.

    • Karm says:

      San Gennaro became commercialized long ago (about the time Guiliani took the mafia out of it)…. If you want a real Italian festival go to Arthur Ave. in The Bronx…. The one in East Harlem is obviously much smaller now because most of the Italians are gone… but it’s more “authentic” still.

  2. Kai B says:

    The most interesting thing for me during these fairs is taking in streets with no traffic. It always feels like a bizarre alternate universe where all cars have disappeared.

  3. They should be for local businesses

  4. Shelly says:

    I used to love street fairs back in the ’80s. I’d go to the 1st Avenue and 3rd Avenue fairs every year back then, when I lived on the UES. But by the ’90s, I’d noticed that the food and music had become ubiquitous, you could buy tube socks on every block of the fair, and it was just boring. Either they get back to what they used to be or they should be retired.

  5. John-2 says:

    The narrow streets south of Houston, to me at least, made the San Gennaro fair a little more interesting/compelling, because basically everything was on top of everything else and the crowds were all crushed together. Have a fair on one of the wider avenues further uptown, or even on the wider ones in the outer boroughs, and the intimacy (even if it’s only in your imagination) is gone.

  6. Joseph Steindam says:

    Of the two fairs in Park Slope (the other is the 5th Ave Fair, which has coincided with Googa Mooga the past two years), I typically prefer the 5th Ave fair, because these fairs do include some of the local businesses, and 5th avenue in Park Slope has more interesting retail and food options. 7th is becoming pretty inundated with chains, depleting its local charm and making way for excess vendors selling sheets.

    I really do like the street fairs, it’s definitely something that I think is still unique to New York, much like the block party. Other places may have similar events, but tend to set them up at parks or on fairgrounds, street fairs I think are less common. I do agree that I don’t enjoy seeing 5-10 vendors at each fair selling Mozzarepas, fried oreos, and crepes (although I do love crepes), so improvement in selecting vendors is always appreciated. As for the disruption to daily life, sure they are disruptive, but they also attract a large portion of locals to the events, distracting them from going elsewhere that day. They do inconvenience the folks traveling through. But I fall squarely on the side of these are generally a civic benefit, they can always improve, but they are a good thing.

  7. Duckie says:

    I share similar opinions about street fairs. 15 years ago, I had a soft spot for them and, in fact, my first date with my wife was at a street fair on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. The best of the fairs are the ones that retain some local color. The Atlantic Antic is probably the best of the bunch at this point. This upcoming weekend will be the Smith Street Fair and I’ll visit it since it’s in my neighborhood and many of the Smith Street merchants participate. I do, however, think that there is a utility to the street fairs that you miss; they are often the one and only time a year that local residents walk the entire length of their main shopping thoroughfare. I have often heard neighbors comment about seeing new stores for the first time because they ventured two blocks further than they usually do. They are an opportunity for new shops and restaurants to make a splash in the neighborhood.

  8. Duke says:

    My evidence is anecdotal, but I see the concept as being perhaps in trouble because it doesn’t seem to pull in any young adults. You walk through a street fair you will see plenty of old people and parents with their kids in tow, but very few high schoolers, college students, or 20-somethings. If this is a trend then the parents and old people of the future will be uninterested and attendance will slowly vanish.

  9. John T says:

    Yes, there is a sameness to the fairs, but we still look forward to them. Local restaurants were there if you looked. I don’t see how all the fried italian food trailers survive, but to each their own. Saw lots of people of different ages at both the 7th Ave & 5th Ave fairs in Brooklyn, I disagree about missing HS or college students.

    Sorry to say this, but we buy our inexpensive socks & belts & posters at these fairs, so I guess we’re guilty if you are blaming someone.

    Sometimes local merchants are hurt because the sidewalk is blocked from the street. I was at a street fair in VT where the booths were in the center in squares of 4 booths each. It split the foot traffic and made the stores accessible – maybe NY should try that.

  10. BoerumBum says:

    I’ve heard, anecdotally, that the problem with street fairs in NYC is that when permits are auctioned off, the same 3-4 vendors purchase the vast majority of them… that’s what would need to be solved if we wanted some actual variety or local flavor to these things.

    • That’s my understanding of the permit situation. Solving that problem shouldn’t be challenging but would require upsetting some entrenched interests with tentacles into City Council.

  11. david says:

    Set a standard price for a street fair permit. Make the requesters publish their plan for the fair, have NYCers vote on which plans get a permit. Give discounts on plans which are particularly compelling to the neighborhood

  12. digamma says:

    I still like the street fairs better than car traffic.

    But yeah, they would be better with local businesses. I’ve been to a few like that in Philly and they are a blast. The businesses, especially the restaurants, know it’s a chance to recruit new loyal customers, so they put their best faces forward. You can chat casually with the nonprofits and hear about what they’re doing.

  13. Bolwerk says:

    Nothing wrong with a fair here and there, but if you want to rethink street use, make it easy for actual artisans to use the streets every day. Entrepreneurs can take up what amounts to about a parking space to do that, and it’s good for the local economy – pisses off shopkeepers, but it’s good for the economy.

    • Nyland8 says:

      ?? If it pisses off shopkeepers, it isn’t good for their economy.

      • Bolwerk says:

        I doubt it hurts them, but many are dumb enough to think it does.

        Anyway, boo hoo. Capitalists shouldn’t hate competition, but most do. 🙁

        • SEAN says:

          What you describe in your second sentance isn’t capitalism, rather it’s self preservation for ones own business.

          That’s not a critisism,just calling it what it truely is.

        • Nyland8 says:

          That’s nonsense. If they think it hurts them, then it does hurt them.

          Shopkeepers have an overhead – a monthly nut they have to make – that street vendors do not. That’s not fair competition. If you’re paying rent and taxes for a storefront, and you’re bound by a lease, then you have a perfect right to complain if street vendors encroach on your business.

          Your idea of “competition” amounts to a false equivalency.

          • Bolwerk says:

            They should both have every right to use space others aren’t using. There is nothing wrong with a level playing field in public space. Nothing should obligate anyone to pay “rent and taxes” on a storefront unless they have a use for it and want it.

            If they think it hurts them, then it does hurt them.

            Let’s extend that reasoning: so if I think your retort is stupid, I get to make sure you shouldn’t be allowed in a public space to communicate to others your imbecilic ramblings and Chris Christie fandom?

            It only “hurts” them in so far as it deprives them of a monopoly on economic use of a section of public thoroughfare – a monopoly they should never have had, and which isn’t in the wider public’s interest.

            • Nyland8 says:

              Chris Christie fandom ?? !! ?? LOL – yeah … let’s extend that “reasoning” beyond anything resembling reasoning at all.

              Is your entire world just one false equivalency after another? Here’s a newsflash for you: The bodega on the corner isn’t a “monopoly”. There’s another one on the next corner – and yet another one across the street.

              Your last post is even more nonsense than your first.

  14. David says:

    I had the same thought yesterday at a street fair on Lex. I had friends from out of town and after two blocks one turned to me and said, “I think I’ve seen everything.” He was right–it was just the same 5 or 6 booths repeated over and over again in different combinations. It was nice to have the street closed to cars but hardly a compelling scene.

  15. llqbtt says:

    Thanks for this piece. I never knew that 1 company controlled them all. And I agree with you that street fairs are now generic and mostly boring. I think that the Giglio fair in Williamsburg is separate and distinct(?) At least it has some modicum of old-Brooklyn local flavor.

  16. Frank McArdle says:

    The first street fairs in the 70s on the UWS were side street affairs, as school fairs and fundraisers. West Side Montessori was just one of the many schools that ran an annual fundraising effort. Likewise local block associations ran a small street fair as a way of raising beautification money and creating a sense of community. The attractiveness of these efforts, bringing the strolling crowds to stop and enjoy, led to the bizarre circumstances that we have today, in which there is no local involvement other than the obligatory moving of one’s car.

  17. BruceNY says:

    I for one have had it with these pointless streetfairs which cause huge traffic disruptions every weekend during the summer. If we can’t abolish them altogether, then couldn’t we at least move them off major avenues and on to a side street (it is a “street” fair after all). How much space do we really need to devote to the same falafel/smoothie/knock-off handbag/tube sock stalls anyway?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Yeah, maybe when the current liberal-conservative coalition ruling the city is dumped. They let one vendor control everything because the Bloomberg-Quinn types who run the city think everyone should be carefully controlled, lest someone do anything remotely imaginative or even deviant.

      Sadly, Mayor Quinn will probably keep most of Bloomberg’s incompetencies while dispensing with his few okay qualities.

  18. Spendmore Wastemore says:

    About time someone noticed.

    They are rooted in because they’re quite lucrative, and connected. I spoke to one staffer at an unassuming $5 sunglass and accessory vendor. Not the the owner; he hires people to staff the thing. This is the rare business that’s almost all profit; no rent (in NYC!), virtually no labor costs, little insurance, etc. Those sunglasses are 50 cents each in medium quantities, less if you can move a container’s worth.

    That particular vendor makes so much money from a few stands that the owner does nothing else, runs them only in the summer and vacations the rest of the year.

    You can be sure they put quite a bit of effort into keeping the fake street fair racket going.

  19. Spendmore Wastemore says:

    About time someone noticed.

    They are rooted in because they’re quite lucrative, and connected. I spoke to one staffer at an unassuming $5 sunglass and accessory vendor. Not the the owner; he hires people to staff the thing. This is the rare business that’s almost all profit; no rent (in NYC!), virtually no labor costs, little insurance, etc. Those sunglasses are 50 cents each in medium quantities, less if you can move a container’s worth.

    That particular vendor makes so much money from a few stands that the owner does nothing else, runs them only in the summer and vacations the rest of the year.

    You can be sure they put quite a bit of effort into keeping the fake fair racket going.

  20. Clarke says:

    I visited the Day Life fair on Orchard St in the Lower East Side a few weeks ago, and it was exactly the type of street fair I could imagine going to. All vendors from the neighborhood, very small lines, crowded but not packed. The current iteration of most city street fairs? Not so much.

  21. Joe says:

    Did my grad school in Chicago and that is a city that knows how to put on AWESOME street fairs. Local food, local merchants, live music, DJs, booze, dance stages, art exhibitions, crafts, you name it. And they all had very distinct personalities and themes based on the neighborhood they were in.

    I feel like in NYC I sorta randomly happen upon street fairs and they’re super boring—maybe get some food and then leave. In Chi, everyone knew about the fairs ahead of time and they were big events to go to and hang out with friends.

    • Tower18 says:

      +1, couldn’t agree more, and was going to post the same thing. Words right out of my mouth.

      Chicago is so far and above NY when it comes to street fairs (both the “for no reason at all” variety, as well as the “ethnic” festivals) that you can’t even see NY from there.

      • AG says:

        Hmmmm – I was just at one in Harlem over the weekend… The only thing not local was Gillette. Even the performers were local. I think ppl stick to midtown too much and equate that with the whole city.

        I’ve been to ones in Chicago – which were cool – but nothing special.

  22. Rob says:

    The Ukrainian fair on E. 7th street occurs every May. It’s one fair that offers unique food, vendors, and music/dance. For the past few years, there has been a 3rd avenue fair during the same weekend that attracts all the generic stuff.

    • Karm says:

      There are plenty of fairs like that (local food/ethnic music that fits the neighborhood) throughout the five boroughs… i’m not sure why the posters on here don’t know about them.

  23. Adirondacker12800 says:

    Still, we were hard-pressed to find anything of value.

    Somebody is, otherwise the vendors wouldn’t be selling it. Just because you didn’t want to buy doesn’t mean other people don’t. They live in the city too.

  24. SEAN says:

    Perhaps in the suburbs things are different? In White Plains for example, once or twice a year the downtown restaurants take over a three block strech of Mamaroneck Av as a meens to showcase themselves. The local shop owners often bitch, but have done very little promotion of there own businesses expecting the local BID to do all the legwork.

  25. smartone says:

    I don’t get why the city won’t give brooklyn flea a chance to organize street fairs in manhattan

  26. JJJJ says:

    I felt like I was in a flintstones cartoon the last time I went to one. It was the same ten stands over and over and over again.

  27. david f says:

    while there are the above mentioned exceptions (san gennaro, st. anthony’s, 9th av food fair), fundamentally the author’s assertions are 100% correct and i couldn’t agree more.
    they’ve become BOR-ING!

  28. Ferdinand Cesarano says:

    I like the street fairs. I find great CDs every time. So much so that I now force myself not to stop for them, because there’s too much good stuff, and I have no room for anything more in my apartment.

    The only thing I find off-putting is the frequent New York Times booths. But I really enjoy the aromas of the cooking foods — the smells of the sausage & peppers and the tortillas. It creates a boardwalk-like feel.

  29. AP says:

    I have similar feelings about street fairs: they happen too often, especially in Manhattan, and they’re nothing special.

    I live in Park Slope and walked through both the 5th Ave and 7th Ave fairs (held in the last month-ish) and there was a marked difference between both of them. I bet they have different organizers. The 5th Ave one, even though it was pouring all day, felt very different and much better because so many of the local businesses (especially food vendors) had booths set up. 7th Ave was sparsely boothed and those that were there were generic stands. I can’t imagine why Butter Lane, popular cupcake mini-chain, wouldn’t have set up a booth – they would have killed it. Unless they weren’t given a fair fight at space, it was too expensive, or they weren’t informed in time.

    Fifth Ave proved to me that I shouldn’t yet write off all street fairs.

  30. Scott Wolpow says:

    Many fairs were run locally by Chambers. The priority was the local merchant. In fact they had the right of first refusal to the booth outside their store.

    Fairs were meant to build traffic to an area and have fun. My first fair was when I was a small child. When the painting booth ran out of paper, we just painted the street. Actually my older sister and I started and all the other kids followed our lead.
    The street remained painted until the next rain.
    The fairs in Queens do have play areas for kids though.

  31. Clemmie says:

    The problem is the participation fees for these fairs are astronomical so if you don’t have a 90% profit margin on your food, forget it. You’ll be lucky if you break even. That is why all the food is pure trash becasue anything better cannot be sold with a profit.

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