Sunday, October 07, 2007

Red Hook Mini-Documentary

video
About the situation with Red Hook food vendors, from nytimes.com:
"This should be a moment to savor for the venerable Latin food vendors of the Red Hook soccer fields in Brooklyn.
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With help from well-placed allies and the passionate advocacy of their media-wise organizer, the vendors — lately a cause célèbre for pro-immigrant groups, free-market cheerleaders and gastrobloggers alike — recently won an extension of their operating season and an inside track on permanent status for the open-air multinational food court they have run on a temporary basis since the 1970s.
But just as they get ready for a difficult winter-long effort to comply with the city health code while preparing a formal bid for the concession rights, the vendors find themselves a family deeply divided over questions of leadership, money and less tangible issues.
In the last three weeks, the group’s organizer and public face, Cesar Fuentes, resigned as its day-to-day operator, threatened to sue vendors who spoke against him, threatened to quit representing them in city negotiations, then agreed to return, after all the vendors signed a petition on Wednesday avowing their “total support” and asking him to stay.
As of yesterday, Mr. Fuentes, 33, a former plantain flipper at his family’s stand, said the vendors were united behind him. “The group needs a leader,” he said, “and I’m the leader.”
This week, few of the vendors seem to have any idea what will — or even should — come next.
“We don’t know anything,” Reina Carrillo said on Sunday at the Guatemalan tamale stand she has run for 10 years. “It’s like we’re walking around blind.”
Mr. Fuentes’s critics had complained that he refused to give a full accounting of the money he collects from the vendors, typically $400 or $600 a month each to cover permits, garbage cleanup and other costs, and that he paid himself too generously.
The vendors have come a long way from their days as an improvised side note to the Hispanic soccer leagues that fill the fields at Clinton and Bay Streets every weekend from April to October.
Over the years, word slowly leaked to the wider world that there, in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Red Hook housing projects, thrived a cluster of food stalls like those found in markets all over Latin America — except that there are not many places in Latin America where a Mexican huarache maker works beside a Salvadoran pupusa peddler, an Ecuadorean ceviche stand and a Chilean purveyor of tuna soup.
But as the vendors’ fame grew, they began to appear on the city’s radar screen. In 2000, the health department threatened to shut them down for sanitary violations. Mr. Fuentes, a Salvadoran immigrant who helped run his family’s stand on weekends while attending college and working full-time with cerebral palsy patients — and who is one of the few vendors fluent in English — emerged to represent the group.
At first, Mr. Fuentes said, his main job was to see that the park was cleaned every weekend — no small task. But he also formed a nonprofit group, the Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park, led negotiations with the city and obtained insurance. He cultivated relationships with politicians and foodies.
As Red Hook gentrified, Mr. Fuentes said, he made sure the new non-Latino customers, who now make up half of the 4,000 people who visit the stands on a typical day, felt welcome.
In May, the city moved again. The parks department told the vendors, who had been operating under a series of temporary contracts, that after Labor Day they would have to bid for their concession like the hundreds of other vendors at city parks, many of whom pay several times what the Red Hook vendors do.
Then the health department said it could no longer allow the stands to operate without the running water, refrigeration, licenses and certified food-preparation facilities that every other food vendor must have.
Mr. Fuentes asked his supporters for help. Senator Charles E. Schumer wrote to the city health commissioner, called the parks commissioner and held a news conference with prominent chefs at the ball fields. Blogs with names like Savesoccertacos cropped up.
The result was that the parks department announced that rather than simply award the Red Hook Park food concession to the highest bidder, it would consider a bidder’s “prior experience, longstanding community relations, and the variety of cuisine offered.” The department also agreed to let the vendors finish their season.
“One of the great New York City pleasures is enjoying tacos, huaraches and other fine Latin American cuisine at Red Hook Park,” declared the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe.
But discontentment with Mr. Fuentes was coming to a head. Ricardo Ramirez, who helps run the largest stand, said that vendors felt that Mr. Fuentes acted as if he was not accountable.
“We want to know where the money goes,” Mr. Ramirez said last week. “How much he pays for insurance, how much he pays the workers who clean up. But when we talk to Cesar and ask him these things, he gets mad.”
Several vendors said they blamed Mr. Fuentes’s publicity efforts for attracting the attention of the city’s regulators, something they found particularly annoying because the resultant influx of non-Hispanic customers has been offset by a drop in Latino customers. “Business is the same,” Ms. Carrillo said. “But now there’s more problems.”
Mr. Fuentes did recently provide the vendors with an accounting, both sides said, and Mr. Fuentes said the fee he awards himself was justified by his work. He said it ranged from $10 to $20 per vending day from each of the 14 vendors -- a total of $280 to $560 per week -- depending on how much was left after the group's expenses were paid.
Early this month, the vendors met without Mr. Fuentes. At the meeting, Esperanza Ochoa, a supporter of Mr. Fuentes who runs a Guatemalan stand and attended the meeting, said, some vendors spoke of keeping Mr. Fuentes around long enough to help them win the parks concession, then deposing him.
It was that meeting, Mr. Fuentes said, that prompted his resignation.
But at a second vendors’ meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Fuentes, through his stepfather, another vendor, delivered the letter threatening legal action. The petition was quickly drafted, begging Mr. Fuentes to ignore negative comments that were “the product of nervousness and desperation.”
Mr. Fuentes and the vendors face daunting tasks, even if they win the concession. The health department has demanded that by next spring every stand be run from an approved vendor’s cart, which can cost thousands of dollars. They will need refrigerators and portable sinks.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a lift for them,” said Elliott Marcus, an associate commissioner for food safety at the health department, “but it’s the cost of doing business.”
As for Mr. Fuentes, he said that the most important thing was that the vendors reopen for another season.
“The last thing I want is for the group to be over,” he said.

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