The Demico House vending strip

It serves no meaningful purpose to restate what, by now, are the well-known facts of the protracted saga of City Hall versus the growing army of pavement vendors who now populate most of the empty spaces in downtown Georgetown. It is truly a tiresome affair. In fact, there are times when it seems that the apparent conflict between the two sides constitutes a sizeable proportion of the capital’s municipal affairs. Never mind the fact that there other much weightier matters that ought to be engaging the municipality’s attention.

It has to be said of course, that street vending has its own challenges. There are instances in which the areas occupied by vendors are environmental eyesores, where persons eat, sleep and relieve themselves. There are, as well, instances in which vending provides cover for the sale of illicit drugs, so that there is every reason why there ought to be some measure of policing oversight at locations where there is a preponderance of street vending.

On the other hand the sooner we recognise that the proliferation of urban street vending is a function of high unemployment and the necessity to provide alternative livelihoods for families, the quicker we will arrive at some sort of understanding as to how to deal with it. It is true that street vending cannot be allowed to thrive as an indiscriminate phenomenon, but then it would be wrong to completely ignore the role that vending plays as a legitimate alternative means of self-support. One makes this point if only because it seems that City Hall perceives vendors and vending as a sort of plaything to be toyed with, even mistreated, as and when it sees fit. The blatant shakedowns of vendors by municipal staff have to stop and initiatives taken to ensure that vending earns the status of a legitimate sector with all of the attendant privileges and obligations. That means, among other things, the institution and enforcement of rules by which vendors must live (and penalties for transgression) and of course, the creation of appropriate and adequate vending spaces at a cost. None of these are available at this time.

On City Hall’s part it is the patent evidence of incompetence and double standards that so often appears to inform its modus operandi in the treatment of vendors that has helped to create and exacerbate the problem. There are law and order considerations too that derive from what is either the inability or the unwillingness of the police to provide effective policing ‘cover’ for vending spaces, some of which are frequented by assorted Dickensian characters whose minds are focused on mischief.

There are mixed public views on what is loosely described as the hustler-type vending, where you can get items ranging from a handful of cough drops or a few ‘loose’ cigarettes to cheap cellular phone accessories, in addition to which it functions as a haunt for characters who are up to no good.  The pavement that separates the western wall of Demico House from the road that extends in the direction of Stabroek Market accommodates mostly hustler-type vending.  The space is narrow and crammed with vendors and pedestrians. It is, as well, the ideal haunt for the snatch-and-dash type of thieves who, in the crush, cannot always be distinguished from the vendors.

The convenience of this strip of pavement reposes in the fact that it sits inside what is almost certainly one of the busiest pieces of real estate in the city. As a vendors’ arcade it has its risks.  Traversing the strip can be a challenge for the faint-hearted, but then if you need to get hold of a cheap cellular phone charger while you are on the move, you take the risk.

The authorities have never really been able to make up their minds about how to treat with the strip of pavement to the west of Demico. One suspects that they are accommodated as non-paying tenants only grudgingly by the proprietors. All things considered, a good case clearly exists for their removal.  But then the problem reposes in the inept, often ham-fisted manner in which the municipality handles these things.

Vending on the Demico strip came under official scrutiny previously in January 2011, after a grenade explosion close by killed one person and injured several others. A police outpost was set up nearby and the Guyana Police Force ordered the vending on the strip to cease. That directive, however, was overturned by the then Transport and Hydraulics Minister Robeson Benn. The police outpost, mind you, did little to reduce the risk associated with either shopping or walking on the strip. What was in evidence was the customary on-again, off-again posture of both City Hall and the Guyana Police Force. It was official inattention that caused the strip to descend into its current condition of decline.

Last weekend the high drama that usually attends the now accustomed City Hall-vendor confrontations returned to the Demico strip in the wake of a directive purportedly issued by controversial Town Clerk Royston King that the vendors on the strip can expect to be removed any time after October 10. Amidst the angry response of the vendors, the quixotic nature of City Hall’s administrative modus operandi manifested itself in the insistence by Deputy Mayor Lionel Jaikaran that whilst, as Chairman of the Markets Committee, he ought to have been the first to be notified, he was altogether unaware of the decision. So that once again we appear to be on the threshold of one of those altogether avoidable standoffs between the city and the vendors that will eventually recede then resurface again at some other inopportune time.

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