Until last week, Corona Plaza in Queens was bustling: taqueros flipping fresh tortillas and vendors hawking Central American crafts over a soundtrack of cumbia and train traffic. There were produce stands, live bands and surging crowds, all in a public square that was named one of the 100 best places to eat in the city.
But last Thursday and Friday, sanitation workers swept through the plaza, removing several stalls and threatening to penalize vendors who did not have a city permit to operate — nearly all of the more than 80 who regularly work there. In the days since, the grilled-meat stands and jugs of agua fresca have been replaced with protest signs.
It was the latest escalation in the city’s tense relationship with the plaza merchants — most of them immigrant women, many of them undocumented — who have helped revive one of the New York neighborhoods hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
A spokesman for the Sanitation Department said removing the unpermitted vendors was necessary because the plaza had become so crowded that it was impassable, “with dirty conditions, with semi-permanent structures bolted into the ground, illegal vending right in front of storefronts.”
But the sweeps also underscored a longstanding impediment for the city’s smallest businesses. Just five of the vendors were operating legally, according to merchant groups, because of what they describe as an artificially low cap on new vendor permits.
The regulations are meant to ensure safety for vendors and customers. But New York’s vibrant street food scene is a major part of the city’s identity as a global food hub — and as a refuge for new entrepreneurs.
“Corona Plaza symbolizes something that is very core to the American ideal,” said Jaeki Cho, the host of Righteous Eats, a popular food channel on social media that has featured the plaza.
“These are real people, making real products that are going to be challenging for you to find elsewhere in New York,” he said.
Now, several elected officials and an organization representing the merchants are pushing the city to offer a faster legal pathway for the vendors to legitimize their businesses, as well as help them address safety and overcrowding concerns, which many of them share.
“We want the opportunity to work,” said Maria Calle, 54, an Ecuadorean immigrant who has cooked in the plaza for 10 years, preparing regional dishes like tripa mishqui, or marinated grilled intestine, that have attracted critical praise and social media devotees.
The number of vendors in the plaza has more than tripled since the start of the pandemic, she said, as many people in the neighborhood, laid off from their jobs in retail and hospitality, decided to try selling food, clothing or handicrafts.
But getting permits has been next to impossible for many of the vendors, merchants said. New York City, with a population of over 8.7 million, has for years capped the total number of available mobile food vending permits at 5,100, and vendors rarely relinquish them once they have them.
The Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit organizing group that has researched the industry, estimated that there were 20,000 street vendors in New York City, and the group said that was probably an undercount.
And the city has made just 853 licenses available for vendors who are not military veterans and are seeking to sell merchandise — a cap that hasn’t changed since 1979, according to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.
Run-ins with the authorities over permits are common. In 2021, sanitation workers were recorded throwing out pallets of produce from an unlicensed fruit vendor in the Bronx. In May, the police clashed violently with vendors in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The City Council passed a law in 2021 mandating the release of another 445 food vendor permits every year for a decade, but the rollout has been slow.
There are 10,195 food vendors on the waiting list, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which manages the applications. The agency has issued just 104 of the new licenses so far, and only four of the recipients have completed all the steps needed to sell food legally.
Ms. Calle is one of the few vendors at the plaza who has a permit — but only because she rents it from a third party for $16,000 a year, a prohibited but widespread practice.
Even so, Ms. Calle decided to close her stall this week, in solidarity with her neighbors.
“I know how hard it is” for new vendors, she said in Spanish, recounting how she had been arrested four times in 23 years for various permitting violations.
While few merchants at the plaza own the hard-to-obtain permits, most of them, including Ms. Calle, pay taxes on sales, and hold a license that certifies they have taken a food safety course.
At the rally at the plaza on Wednesday, the dispersed merchants were joined by elected officials including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, who said his office had not been informed of the Sanitation Department sweeps before they took place.
“Our vendors want licenses, but the city has dragged its feet,” he said to applause and a smattering of jeers from critics who said the plaza had become overcrowded, dirty and unsafe for pedestrians.
Daniel Grande, 38, a longtime local resident originally from Puebla, Mexico, said the vendors were spreading like verdolaga, a fast-growing weed common in many countries in Latin America.
“You have to walk down the street instead of the sidewalk,” he said in Spanish. “I am not against street vendors, but they should be better organized.”
Nearly 4,000 people, most of them locals, have signed a petition in support of the vendors.
The plaza, once an underused service road near 103rd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, was redesigned in 2012 as a public square.
When the pandemic hit the surrounding neighborhood of Corona — harder than almost anywhere else in the United States — the plaza became an economic and cultural hub for recovering workers, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project.
Many merchants agree that the plaza needs better regulation, but not in the form of frequent policing, said Rosario Troncoso, the president of the Corona Plaza Street Vendors Association, the organization that represents them.
Ms. Troncoso, who lost her job cleaning houses during the pandemic, opened a stall at the plaza three years ago, selling backpacks and traditional Mexican clothing.
The sales have been enough to support her and her family, but she and other members fear agency fines that could run into the thousands of dollars.
“We want to formalize the market, so we can all work in peace, without Sanitation and the police coming to kick us out,” she said.
Improvements are underway. To counteract littering, public agencies paid for a community trash bin that vendors take turns handling through a large WhatsApp group chat, Ms. Kaufman-Gutierrez said.
The biggest change that could come to the plaza is a new management plan led by the city’s Department of Transportation, which owns the site: one that could circumvent the need for merchants to vie for limited vendor permits.
The so-called concession agreement would allow a company to regulate the vendors year-round and ensure they follow city rules, pass food safety courses and register for tax collection. A similar model exists at the Bronx Night Market, in Fordham Plaza, another publicly owned square.
A spokesman for the department said it was months away from releasing a request for proposals for a nonprofit company to operate Corona Plaza.
There is reason for skepticism, said Seth Bornstein, the executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit that supports local small businesses.
“Corona Plaza is not the Flatiron district, and it’s not Brooklyn Heights,” he said, naming two far more affluent commercial hubs. “It’s never been a top priority, because it deals with poor people.”
The median household income in Corona is less than $58,000, compared with $70,500 citywide, according to Social Explorer, a demographic data firm.
Mr. Bornstein, who started working with the nonprofit in 1979, has teamed up with multiple city administrations and a tangle of agencies to address the borough’s business needs.
“They’re very smart people — but they don’t know about Queens,” he said, adding an expletive.