Sunday, March 30, 2014

Can't Fight City Hall

Even though I live in a city of 8 million + people, I am firmly convinced that I can make a difference. Especially when it comes to my corner, which borders on Central Park. This proximity to recreation, carriage rides and strawberry fields attracts tourists whose Euros and Renminbis prove irresistible to enterprising vendors.  Unfortunately for my neighborhood, the vendor business had been booming. Sidewalks, crosswalks, passing lanes and fire zones were bursting with small time entrepreneurs exhibiting a level of audacity not seen since the Dutch stole Manhattan. 



Truth was, my corner had become the new Urban Food Court  with falafels, smoothies, Softee and Sabretts brewing alongside pedicabs touting celebrity tours and sunset rides. Pedestrians filed through razor thin openings into oncoming traffic; lane jumping taxis, load bearing trucks, out-of-state drivers - hit their brakes inches from mothers with strollers and seniors with walkers. 


Which is why I was filing a complaint to 311 - a city department fashioned for citizen gripes - less urgent than the "OMG call 911!!" variety. 


20 minutes later  a patrol car pulled up.  I caught up with Officers Orion and Jackson as Messieurs Abdul and  Bolodenka were arguing the fine points of "standing" in a No Standing Zone. To their credit the officers presented each with a clearly defined Parking Ticket. 


And just like that my corner cleared. A simple act of civic initiative had put things to right. 


But in a New York minute the gang returned - Pedicab drivers lounged alongside parking hydrants skyping their girlfriends..


The shadow economy took hold: A hierarchy of vendors established the locations, set the schedules, fudged the permits, finessed the health codes, cooked the books. Here CASH was king and nobody, but NOBODY picked up the trash. 


A sales force spread out for blocks accosting pedestrians with improvised pitches "You will see the real Central Park - Billionaire penthouses,  movie locations, Yoko Ono's favorite bench". Drivers were studying for PHD's in history, architecture, horticulture working their way through NYU and Columbia. "For you a special price - only $150". 


To be honest I had never experienced the ride first hand.  The thought of bumping along through city traffic in a narrow contraption made of plywood and bike parts with only a tarp covering for rain or snow - Tempting..


How had this latter day Rickshaw caught the public fancy? I blamed Trip Advisor and Yelp - "The Only Way to See Central Park" - "A real Valentine". Where was the charm in a skinny Kenyan peddling 800 pounds of vacationing Bavarians up the 90th street incline? 


I posted a follow up complaint. This time Officer Ortiz, 54th precinct responded. 


After running down the offenders, Ortiz was in a chatty mood: "These guys don't care how many tickets we write - to them it's just their cost of doing business. "


I pressed him further.. "Look, if I were you" he confided, "I'd get a group together - More people - more votes - if you catch my drift..."  


Ortiz was right. I needed to go the next step - 
A PETITION! Everyone in my building was always griping about the corner - probably worth 20-30 signatures no sweat. 


Stationed in my apartment lobby with a smile and a clipboard I attempted to engage my neighbors. Turns out they were a very cautious bunch. 


A very busy bunch...


And an impressively PC bunch.  "These are immigrants...It's their only chance for a better life"...


I'd just about given up when Susan from 11B and Cheryl from 18A signed without hesitation. Seems their taxi had just been clipped by a pedicab going north on a southbound street just one of many recent vendor indignities. They wanted to do more than sign a petition - they wanted to get involved.


We continued on to the Venetian Coffee Shop - so/so coffee but great booths frequented by neighbors hoping to forestall its inevitable extinction.  Cheryl worked for an art not-for-profit which meant she knew how to get things done on a shoestring. "We need to create an organization with a catchy name, a mission statement, website, email blasts..." Susan, a real estate broker, who could sell anything to anyone, liked the idea but wondered "How are we going to pay for all this?"


Which is where I came in - as long as there was a tutorial out there I could tackle pretty much anything the internet had to offer. Another splash of coffee and  "Stop Vendor Offenders" (SVO) was conceived.! Two weeks later we went live at vendorOffenders.org and so did our campaign...


We emailed, we Facebooked we Tumbled... 


We pinterested, we texted we tweeted... 


And we landed the holy grail of cause marketing - a meeting with department heads from *DOT, LPC, WSNA, DSNY and NYPD  - at the NYAC. It was awesome - 


I ran the Power Point - throwing in a bit of Pharrell Williams sound track to keep the room awake. Cheryl and Susan fielded questions.  


Department Chief Watson cited Federal Laws, Veterans' regulations, city politics and then added a dose of reality - "these street guys - they're all replaceable. It's the behind-the-scenes operators with deep pockets - they're impossible to pin down" .. Susan took her cue..



"That's why we were thinking - If you made our corner the new hub of the Citi Bike program.. there'd be no room for vendors - just shiny blue bikes. No more behind the scenes shenanigans, no stepping on toes."  Everyone nodded. DOT, DSNY and even the street light specialist thought it might work. I had to hand it to her that girl could sell. 



But a late arrival from the Mayor's task force brought down the hammer.. "Look, our men have a single mission - to keep the streets safe and protect the little guy." And then looking straight at us "Ladies, I'm afraid New York isn't a 1 per center town anymore."  



The room went quiet. All heads turned disdainfully in our direction. Cheryl fingered her discount transit card, Susan snapped shut her Vuitton knock-off and I bit into my complimentary glazed donut. My brain scrambled for the perfect response that would set the record straight and put us back on track but all I could muster was a high pitched "WHO?? What One Percent??!!"  But he'd sucked the air right out of the room - texts were checked, tablets folded and chairs scraped back. The meeting was over. 

Vendor Offenders was doomed. Like Calcutta before outsourcing NYC had become the wild west of legal loopholes. Law abiding citizens need not apply.


Susan said what we were all thinking.. "What good is all this culture and excitement if you can't cross your own street...!???"  

This last part she directed at an approaching pedicab driver who assumed she wanted a ride. His "associate" accused him of stealing his fare.  A shouting match ensued. We skedaddled. 



What we missed but heard was a nasty brawl which caused a third pedicab to crash into a Sabrett cart which catapulted an overflowing trash can into an oncoming taxi which startled a carriage horse causing a linen truck to careen into a sightseeing bus seconds before the number 7 bus turned south onto Seventh Avenue (deep breath).



All in all a record pile-up:  8 vehicles, 7 pedicabs, 3 vendors, 3 taxis, a horseless carriage and a traffic post smashed.


Miraculously no one was seriously hurt, but it did make a splash - My corner made headlines from New York to Borneo.  CNN ran "Mayhem in Midtown" 24/7 which day 4 - got the Mayor's attention. 



What the situation called for was a quick fix - face saving, crowd pleasing and most of all photogenic. Which is why 48 hours later - Susan, Cheryl and I found ourselves alongside the Mayor for the unveiling of Central Park's first "City Bikes" Station..




A 21st Century solution to traffic, pollution, obesity and as far as we were concerned... rogue vendors..

The street is clean, quiet, kid friendly and enjoyable.. Which lead New York Magazine to describe it as "civility in midtown"  


And the New York Times reported eye popping sales.. (our first one per center)...


And best of all - I made two new best friends.. 


Life is good...You betcha!


THE END

Disclaimer: Some facts have been changed so remember .. It's just "wishful thinking"!