Ah, the New York street fair. What could be more ... boring?
The fairs are a fixed part of summer in the city, one that taxi drivers detest, some community groups love and regular residents regard warily.
Why do they all look the same?
Where are the local crafts?
Who buys all those tube socks?
The street fairs all look the same because they are all run by the same small handful of professional organizers. Who recruit the same vendors. Who pay fees for the use of the booths. The money goes to the organizers, to the community groups who serve as sponsors, and the city.
And somebody must buy the tube socks because they keep selling them.
There were 321 approved street fairs last year, mainly in Manhattan, from the venerable San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy to the slightly less well-known Plantathon and Crafts Fair on the Upper West Side. Many people think there should be less. Or none. But the community groups appreciate the money, it's a tradition. A cookie-cutter, traffic-blocking, tube-socks-selling tradition.
"Part of our culture," said Mayor Bloomberg in 2006. That was when Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit research group, studied the street fair scene and determined that they were "uniformly bland." And that almost half of all the booths in all the fairs in the city were filled with the products of 20 vendors.
Now Bloomberg is thinking again, and floating the idea of cutting back. "Look, I love going down and having one of those hot sausages like anyone else," he said defensively on WOR-AM recently.
I doubt he really loves the hot sausages. Despite his infamous preference for covering his food with salt, the mayor is known to be a health maven. Everybody knows that if you are going to buy anything at a street fair with an eye toward saving your arteries, it's supposed to be the skewered chicken.
Bloomberg's change of heart is all about money. The city made about $1.6 million from its cut of the street fair revenue. But it cost about $800,000 more than that to police them.
Given the city's budget crisis, every venerable and possibly ossified city traditions is a target. The mayor has already announced that from now on, all parades will have shorter routes and running times. The new maximum is five hours, which sounds like a heck of a lot of marching. But the city will save more than $3 million a year in police overtime if he can pull it off. (The Puerto Rican Day parade has already gotten what looks like a semi-exemption on the shorter route issue.)
The street fairs have their own defense weapons, including a law that gives charities the right to hold fairs and festivals. This harks back to the good old days, when churches and schools would hold the events, selling homemade sandwiches and pastry, and running now-forbidden games of chance.
Maybe the answer is to require that all the vendors at a street fair be members of the community group that is sponsoring the event. The advantages are obvious. The number of fairs would instantly plummet. The ones that were left would actually look different from one another. Local craftsmen and cooks would be encouraged to show off their work.
Or at worst, the membership lists of Manhattan neighborhood associations would swell with the addition of a flood of tube-socks vendors from Westchester County.