Keep Our Eyes on the Street Open

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

While you usually don't hear the words street vendor and hero uttered in the same breath, just two weeks after the Bloomberg administration proposed to drastically cut the number of art vendors allowed in four popular city parks, two Times Square vendors (and Vietnam veterans) are being hailed as heroes for alerting police officers to a suspicious-looking abandoned Nissan Pathfinder, packed with explosives, near the tourist-clogged intersection of Broadway and 45th Street.

Lance Orton and Duane Jackson's quick thinking should come as no surprise to city dwellers everywhere, especially not to New Yorkers. The scene could have come straight out of Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of American Cities, the classic book published in 1961 that has influenced how generations of urban planners think about city street life. Jacobs herself would have called these hero street vendors "public characters" who make streets safer because they have their "eyes upon the street."

But in recent weeks, with the proposal to limit vendors in parks--including sections of Central Park, and all of Union Square, Battery Park and the High Line--the city has once again cast vendors as public nuisances who block sidewalks, creating safety hazards for pedestrians, or as enemies of "the public's right to enjoy public space," as Edward Wallace, who helped write the 1982 law allowing artists to peddle First Amendment-protected "expressive material," recently wrote in The New York Times.

Vendors have long faced accusations of lowering the city's quality of life. Sociologist Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk, a study of vendors who sold scavenged books and magazines on the streets of Greenwich Village during the Giuliani years, showed how men often painted as threatening and as potential perpetrators of crime and disorder actually helped keep order, despite the fact several were addicted to drugs and alcohol and some homeless or formerly homeless. His portrait of these street peddlers challenged the conventional wisdom of purging vendors from the streets in order to "improve" neighborhoods, a la the "broken windows" theory of community policing that ultimately led to Giuliani's crackdown on squeegee guys and issuing of tickets for jay walkers.

To be sure, the crush of vendors and throngs of people in high-foot traffic areas in the city can often make for a miserable pedestrian experience, one that leaves me dodging cars when I've given up on the sidewalk in favor of walking in the street. But this incident should help city officials reconsider the role that vendors play as eyes on the street and as our city's first line of defense when trouble strikes. Going forward, the NYPD and city officials would be smart to appreciate vendors as an untapped crime-fighting resource rather than see them as a problem. It could be the start of an innovative partnership.

Right now, the Bloomberg administration wants to reduce park art vendors by a whopping seventy-five percent. If the city follows through with its plan, only 18 vendors would be allowed in Union Square, for example, down from the 100 or so that set up shop now on busy weekends. While the proposed changes would result in more elbow room, the regulations would also mean eighty fewer pairs of eyes that can "say something" when they "see something" suspicious in a crowded park on a summer afternoon, an appealing soft target for people bent on inflicting the most mayhem with minimal effort. Think of your typical vendor as a living, breathing time-lapse camera, attuned to subtleties we don't stick around long enough to notice. Can we really afford to risk losing so many?