The New York Pushcart: Recommendations of the Mayor's Commission

Mayor's Pushcart Commission Charities and the Commons 16 (22 September 1906): 615-18.
Pushcart peddlers had been a crucial part of the New York Street scene for many years. Thousands of enterprising small businessmen from immigrant communities found their livelihood and had a chance to get ahead through this mode of self- employment, while tens of thousands of consumers benefitted from the sale of inexpensive groceries and dry goods wares hawked right on their doorsteps. But they made for noise, confusion, and congestion--facts of social life abhorrent to middle class citizens who lived elsewhere in the city. The elaborate regulations detailed in this bit of reporting were meant to impose order on chaotic street competition. Some peddlers supported such proposals in hope that regulation of competition would prove to be profitable to themselves as established pushcart entrepreneurs.
To clear the East Side streets of the ruck of pushcart peddlers without injustice to these small tradesmen, but thoroughly enough to make for sanitation and open traffic, was the task set for a commission appointed by Mayor McClellan about a year ago. Its report has now been given out. The commissioners believe that by dividing the city into two areas, granting roving licenses in one, but designating stationary stands for all pushcarts in crowded tenement streets, and limiting their number to four to a corner, the problem, which they hold to be primarily a traffic problem and so falling under the police department, can be solved. The report of the commission is not yet from the press, but will be, aside from its practical purposes, a picturesque analysis of one of the most interesting phases of the half foreign street life of New York. It is written by Lawrence Veiller as chairman of the commission, along lines similar to the Tenement House Report of five years ago-the detailed investigation being in the hands of the commission's secretary, Archibald A. Hill. Other members were Health Commissioner Thomas Darlington, Street Commissioner John McGaw Woodbury, Dr. E.K. Browd, the Rev. G.A. Carstensen, the Rev. Bernardino Polizzo, Miss Lilian D. Wald and Gregory Weinstein.

The basis of the evil of the present system of the pushcart trade, is that four or five thousand peddlers are crowded into comparatively small districts and these the most congested in New York. Carts stand in unbroken lines on some streets, interfering with traffic and adding to the danger of fires. This crowding the commissioners found has no relation to the needs of the population as purchasers and they hold that the traffic could be abolished entirely without loss to anyone but the peddlers themselves. This is thought unnecessary however if the pushcart men can be more evenly distributed throughout certain sections of the city.

The investigation goes to show that there is no special danger to the community from the food supplies sold from pushcarts, for the wares are usually as good, if not better, than the supplies sold in neighboring stores. While, generally speaking, it has been found that the pushcart peddlers are not poor men (they earn an average of $12 to $15 a week) the reports show that many of the city's licenses are farmed out by the padrones, who make large profits. Petty black-mailing and the sale of indulgences through the police was found to exist and a similar system prevails among many shop keepers whereby peddlers are regularly made to pay tribute.

The commission finds that basket peddling is an unnecessary nuisance and recommends its abolishment. Sidewalk stands in the congested districts are almost as great an evil as the pushcarts and should be similarly regulated.

The work of the commission has been especially marked by its recognition of the social facts of population in New York. "The city is a cosmopolitan one, the home of representatives of nearly every nation in the world and the customs and habits of many of its inhabitants are not the customs and habits of others; practices which would not be tolerated in one part of the city are necessary and desirable in other parts. Many of the attempts that have been made in the past to solve the so-called pushcart problem, and also other social question, have failed because of the failure to recognize the fundamental fact that laws which are good for one part of the city, may not only be valueless but may even work great hardship in other sections."

This view, then, is the basis of the commission's recommendation that the city be divided into two broad districts, to be known as "restricted" and "unrestricted" districts. The "restricted" districts are to be the congested tenement quarters.

Consequently two kinds of licenses are to be issued: traveling licenses and stationary licenses; the former, to be good only in the unrestricted districts, permitting peddlers to sell their wares in any portion of such districts and to travel from street to street. The stationary licenses are to be good only in the restricted districts and only in the particular portion of each street named in the individual license. In these "restricted" districts the number of pushcarts is to be limited to four carts on each street; one at each of the four corners, but located twenty-five feet back from the corner. These stations will be disposed of at public auction to the highest bidder once a year. A minimum license fee of $10 will be charged for all licenses and a premium will be paid, as may be determined at auction, for such amounts above this $10 fee as the peddlers may desire to bid in competition depending upon the desirability of the individual location.

A peddler who is thus awarded a license to stand, for instance, on the west side of Orchard street, 25 feet south of Rivington Street, will have the right to maintain his pushcart at this point at all times for one year. He will not be allowed to sell goods at any other point; nor will he be allowed to move his pushcart up and down that block except when going to and from his station night and morning. During such progress he will not be permitted to sell goods. There will be another peddler at the corner below him, twenty-five feet north of Delancey street, and two others directly opposite on the east side of Orchard street as shown in the accompanying drawing. No other peddlers will be permitted to ply their trade upon that block at any time during the year. These four peddlers therefore will have, during the period of one year, the exclusive privilege of peddling in this street, their only competitors being the shopkeepers. For this privilege they will pay the city instead of the shopkeeper as at present. Each peddler securing a stationary license will be given two signs, which must be fastened upon the end of his pushcart. Their cost will be included in the $10 license fee. One sign will contain the license number of the peddler's license, the other will contain the location at which he is entitled to stand.

Although there will be only two pushcarts on each side of the street, it will be seen that anyone standing at any corner will be able to have access immediately to eight pushcarts within a radius of 50 feet, thus completely serving the needs of the tenement house population. The commission found 2,362 peddlers in the district south of 14th street and east of Broadway. Under the plan of the commission for stationary licenses, with one pushcart on each corner, 2,634 pushcarts can be accommodated in this district, or nearly 300 more than are now there.

In the unrestricted districts traveling licenses will be issued. These will not be for any definite location, but will permit the peddler to sell his wares at any point outside the restricted districts and will permit him to travel from street to street. In these districts the peddlers will be required to locate one at each of the four corners, and twenty-five feet back from the corner, just as in the restricted districts.

The commission further recommends that the minimum license fee for all kinds of pushcart licenses be $10 a year and that stationary licenses be auctioned off once a year to the highest bidders, who will pay premiums beyond this minimum fee.

All licenses will expire on July 1 of each year and the amount of the fee be the same irrespective of whether a peddler has had a license in previous years.

The report further suggests that all horse and wagon peddlers be forbidden to ply their trade in restricted districts in order to prevent an unfair competition with the peddlers holding stationary licenses. To further prevent confusion the commission recommends that the forms used for stationary and traveling licenses be different and that each license issued contain, both in English and in the language spoken by the holder of the license, provided he is either Jew, Italian or Greek, the privilege which the license confers.

In order that each license issued be solely personal property the commission suggests that any license found in the possession of a person to whom it was not issued be confiscated and declared void. That no person keeping a store be permitted to hold a license; that no license be issued to any peddler who does not own his own pushcart; that the pushcart must be presented at the time the license is issued and the sign bearing the license number be then affixed by the enforcing authorities. That before a license is issued the applicant shall fill out a blank giving his name, address, age, nationality, and such other facts as may be required by the enforcing authorities. That the enforcing authorities shall take a photograph of each applicant for a license, and also a description of the applicant's chief characteristics; namely, height, weight, sex, color of hair and eyes, etc.; that these photographs be uniform in size and be kept on card records in the office of the enforcing authorities, together with the other information above mentioned. By these means the present padrone system will be entirely done away with, also the system of extortion by shopkeepers, as well as the barter and sale in city licenses.

The suggestion that a photograph and description of the peddler's physical characteristics be required to be filed among the records of the enforcing authorities, originated with the peddlers themselves. All of the peddlers who testified before the commission including the three leading nationalities, namely, the Jewish, Italian, and Greek, were unanimous in this suggestion. Some even went so far as to state that they would be willing to have the photograph on the license itself, and some being willing that it should be displayed on their carts.

With respect to temporary licenses the commission recommends that such be issued good only during the Jewish and Italian Holy-days, and the Christmas season, no such license to be good for any period longer than two weeks; the minimum fee for these licenses to be $3; all of the conditions relating to the granting of other licenses to apply to these temporary ones; and no such temporary licenses to be granted in "restricted" districts except for such stations as may not be occupied. Penalties for peddling in the city's streets without a license are fixed at arrest and imprisonment for not less than one week nor more than one month. That the penalty for peddling in a "restricted" district when holding a "traveling" license or in an "unrestricted" district when holding a "stationary" license will be confiscation of the pushcart and forfeiture of the license.

The program suggested, will, it is thought, not only do away with congestion of the streets, but will put an end to police blackmail; the peddler being stationed at one point, cannot be ordered to "move on" by the policeman, cannot be arrested for obstructing traffic, for standing in the wrong place, for standing more than thirty minutes in one spot, nor for any other of the charges on which peddlers are now most frequently arraigned. The enforcement of the ordinances will be comparatively simple; the patrolman on post will be the enforcing officer and the special squad now assigned to the license bureau will no longer be necessary, but can devote its time to other more important work. "Under this system it will not be necessary either to remove the peddlers from the streets or to reduce the number of licenses. By a proper distribution of the peddlers all of the present evils can be remedied, but such distribution must be automatic and must be permanent."

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