Street vending, again

A certain measure of public sympathy – deriving from the fact that street vending is an honest alternative to unemployment – has always accrued to street vendors. That does not mean, however, that the practice does not have its downside, much of which has to do with the congestion resulting from the encumbering of the streets and pavements and the garbage that vendors often leave behind at the end of the trading day, adding to the ugliness of an already unsightly capital.

Street vending may not be the only contributor to the condition of the city but it has made its own considerable contribution thereto.

We accept, therefore that there is an end objective of ridding the streets of the downside of vending though that pursuit has given rise to problems of enforcement that have been characterized by political gamesmanship on the parts of both the city officials and central government and by what one might call ‘arrangements’ between the city police and the vendors that allow the practice to persist despite official sanction.

The acceptance that the longer term goal is to remove the vendors off the streets and pavements without putting them out of work has been manifested in the creation of two vendors’ arcades – the Water Street Arcade and, more recently, the Stelling View Arcade – in recent years. Some of the vendors have moved on to becoming stallholders in those arcades. Others have remained on the streets for various reasons including the fact that they cannot all be accommodated in the arcades. Others have claimed – plausibly – that they have been cheated out of the opportunity to secure places in those arcades. Others still, having secured places in one or another of the two arcades have refused to surrender their places on the streets and pavements. Those positions provide ready access to customers so that they simply use their stalls as storage spaces from which they move their goods back onto the streets. Over time too, new vendors have taken up positions on the streets.

A point has long been reached where there is no real commitment on the sides of either the municipal authorities or the vendors occupying the streets to good order. Periodic clampdowns on street vending, like the recent one, now seem like an irritating game between the city police and the vendors played out at intervals and characterized by protracted periods during which the vendors are simply allowed to remain on the streets. What this has meant is that the substantive point regarding the importance of getting the vendors of the streets – or at least significantly minimizing the practice – has become lost in a thicket of claims about seasonal amnesties and temporary permits. These might seem like gestures of magnanimity but they never really work. What they do is to give rise to conflicts like the one that ensued outside the Stabroek Market earlier this week regarding whether or not City Hall had given the vendors’ notice that they were about to remove them once again. Of course, if street vending is deemed to be illegal the question of giving notice ought not to arise at all. That is as it should be.

Whether or not we should sacrifice good order in the capital, permanently, it seems, in order to allow the vendors to ‘make a living’ is an issue that has endured over time. When all is said and done, however, it makes little sense for us to have to endure what the city has become in order to accommodate street vending. If we cannot afford a society in which the unemployed who seek honest means of surviving and supporting their families are denied the opportunity to do so by one honest means or another; equally, we cannot accept that the price that we must pay for street vending has to be a state of permanent disorder and chaos.

In sum, the response to the issue of street vending cannot be an unclear and quixotic ‘policy’ which appears to shift from the one extreme of sympathetic accommodation to the other of periodic evictions, which is what appears to be the case at this time. Restoring the city to some semblance of order cannot be sacrificed on the altar of posturing, politicking and indecision. Equally, the plight of the vendors cannot be pushed to the back burner. We must continue and, frankly, do more to create areas in which they can ply their trade legally which initiatives, of course, must be attended by the stricter application of regulations regarding the manner in which those spaces are used.

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