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3rd February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 3, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg, with the connivance of Council Speaker Quinn, has proposed permitting the addition of 1,500 vendors to city streets. These vendors have long been a source of contention. In some cases they so crowd certain streets that they become a public nuisance, which is the rationale for having government regulate them.

Those who sell the same wares in conventional stores hate the street vendors with particular passion. After all, who wants a competitor opening up right in front of his door, a competitor not burdened with paying rent, an electric bill, or even, in some instances, taxes?

The caveat in the Bloomberg plan is that this new crop of street vendors will be restricted to selling only fruits and vegetables, products that the conventional wisdom reckons is good for your health. These “green carts” will be restricted to areas that Mr. Bloomberg’s “health police” tell us such products are not readily available. Next the mayor is going to ban supply and demand.

The mayor’s press release announcing the program noted that on the Upper East Side, 20% of the bodegas carry leafy vegetables, while just 3% do in Harlem. Why is the supply of this “healthy” food so much greater in one neighborhood than the other?

I maintain that if more customers in Harlem wanted to buy leafy vegetables, market forces personified by New York’s very savvy bodega owners would be more than happy to fill their shelves with as much arugula as they can sell to meet this demand, just as they do on the Upper East Side.

But selling produce is a high-risk proposition. If you invest in goods that will spoil in a matter of days, your investment is lost. A can of beans will keep for years. Even bags of potato chips have a shelf life of months. Bodega owners in Harlem and elsewhere simply are not ready to stock items that their experience tells them are not in demand, particularly ones that quickly spoil.

Now even in these “underserved” neighborhoods, some bodegas stock greens, and there are some green grocers and supermarkets to be found as well. I suspect that these are located to meet demand, and that if we unleash hundreds of vendors on the streets, they will gravitate to these very same areas. It is not hard to see why these businesses, for the most part “mom and pop” operations, are concerned over this new competition. And it is hard to see how hundreds of vendors selling lettuce will increase demand.

My favorite street vendor was Raymond Haber, who, for years, sold pretzels on the City College campus. He was widely known as “Raymond the Bagel Man,” and was fondly recalled by another City College alumnus, General Powell, who wrote about Raymond in his memoirs:

“He was a short red-faced weather beaten man with gnarled hands, and he stood behind a steaming cart of those giant pretzels that New Yorkers are addicted to … I was to become a regular of Raymond’s over the next four and a half years. And it either speaks well of his character or poorly of my scholarship that while my memory of most of my professors has faded, the memory of Raymond the Bagel Man remains undimmed.”

During my time at CCNY, Raymond was generally to be found between what was then the north and south campuses of the college, the most heavily trafficked spot, which was also a stone’s throw from what was then the High School of Music and Art. He sold his pretzels by the hundreds because there was a huge demand for them. He settled on a product that sold briskly because, as General Powell points out, New Yorkers love these big, soft, salty pretzels.

Raymond understood the market and satisfied the demand. Had Mayor Wagner, or more likely Mayor Lindsay, demanded that he sell arugula and radicchio (produce unknown to most students of my day), I suspect that he would not have met with the same economic success.

With his green cart plan, Mayor Bloomberg is attempting to project his personal eating preferences on the rest of us. He may think that by glutting the market with healthy greens, he will create demand, but I suspect that he’s fooling himself.

Maybe the mayor should invest some of his own money into buying fruits and vegetables that he will offer to stores on a consignment basis. If the produce sells, the bodegas and the mayor share the profit. If it doesn’t, it will be the mayor who will absorb the loss. I suspect that such an arrangement wouldn’t last, and the mayor’s foray into fresh produce would quickly come to an end. Or, maybe not. After all, every day Raymond the Bagel Man invested in pretzel futures, taking the risk that a sudden rainstorm might leave him with inventory he just might have to eat.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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