Not All Is Fair in Street Fairs, Some Say
Every summer, a string of events hit the city that provide, depending on your perspective, either a fun-filled, leisurely day of shopping, eating and entertainment or a hellish, traffic-jamming, noise-making, government-sanctioned takeover of public places. To many, they are just street fairs. Some love them, many enjoy them, and some scratch their heads with wonder at how such things are allowed so often. There are different types of street fairs permitted by the city: multi-block and single-block. (Block parties, which require only the closing of one block and don't involve the sale of any goods or services, are categorized separately but must get similar city approvals.) The multi-block events are the big ones that take place on the avenues and span anywhere from a couple blocks up to, on the Upper West Side, 15 blocks. They're all run for the benefit of nonprofit organizations, from churches to schools to charity groups, and they all have to go through an approval process that lets the community board and local residents weigh in first. "The street fairs on side streets tend to be to benefit an organization, and one of the requirements, not surprisingly, is that the organization is actually on the street," said Mark Diller, chair of Community Board 7. "You usually hear a bit of grumbling about parking and amplified sound because people's homes are right there." Diller said that overall, the board doesn't hear too many complaints about street fairs; some people don't like them when they happen right in front of their building, but the city doesn't usually allow the same side street to be closed more than once a year. While the approval process on the Upper West Side is relatively calm and uncontroversial, Upper East Side community board members have recently been grappling with resident complaints about the sheer number of street fairs and whether ones specifically held for private institutions, like a street closure for a private school's graduation celebration, should be approved at all. At Community Board 8's March meeting, several board members spoke out against specific street closures for relatively small events, based on how the sponsoring organization behaved in the community and how it ran its event. Some opposed allowing Marymount Manhattan College to have a four-hour block party, but supported churches and other schools hosting similar events. One church event drew support from some who pointed out that the church is committed to social service in the community and vitriol from others who called their event "horrible" and "outrageous." The board disapproved a block party hosted by Lenox Hill Hospital because it's a private event and not open to the public, as well as two applications from the Central Park Precinct Community Council for two separate block parties because they normally have their meetings on the West Side. "Let them have their street fairs in Board 7 where they chose to have their meetings," said David Rosenstein, a sentiment echoed by many members. The board is considering amending their criteria for street fair and block party applications to address the differences between public and private events, as well as tightening the requirements for community involvement. On the West Side, City Council Member Gale Brewer said that she hears from some people who are vehemently opposed to fairs taking over their streets, but that she also has a unique viewpoint gained by attending every major fair in her district and seeing firsthand how residents interact with the events. She brings a table, sets it up with pamphlets on city and local issues, and spends the day chatting with people who come by. "It's a lot of work, but I've never missed one," Brewer said. While some residents have complained that the street fairs cater to visitors at their expense, turning their streets into tourist attractions, Brewer said that the proof is in the depleted stacks of flyers at the end of the day. "Tourists are not interested in tenant information; I can see that it's local people," she said. The biggest complaints tend to be over traffic-streets are rerouted and curbside parking becomes even tighter than usual when several avenue blocks are closed-and the fear that street vendors are siphoning business from the brick-and-mortar stores that sit just behind the temporary booths. Recently, however, some of the major street fair production companies-like Mort and Ray Productions, which puts on many of the Upper West Side's major festivals-have been making efforts to accommodate merchants by offering them prime spaces outside of their own stores at discounted rates and agreeing not to place a vendor selling dresses outside of a women's clothing boutique or a cupcake truck outside of a bakery. "We take great care to make sure that no one is selling a similar product to merchants," said Andrew Albert, executive director of the West Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, which produces the Amsterdam Avenue and Columbus Avenue festivals. "We've got a very sophisticated computer program that we paid a lot of money for that ensures that doesn't happen. We also walk the avenue and speak to the merchants and tell them about the fairs." He said he's heard from some small business owners who were delighted to find that street fair foot traffic morphed into regular customers. "There's Gazala's at 78th Street, a Middle Eastern place," Albert said. "After people sampled their food at the fair, people came back for months afterward. It's a great way to promote the business." Albert stressed that the Chamber of Commerce picks up the entire tab, on top of a fee it pays to the city, to keep the streets clean and safe during and after their events, which is a requirement of all street fairs. "Everyone thinks there's tremendous money in it, but there's really a lot of expenses too," Albert said. "We hire the Doe Fund to help clean the street afterward; we actually leave the street cleaner than when we found it." They also employ extra security to supplement the police officers the city sends out, and charge each vendor a sanitation deposit that they only get back if they leave their space spotless. "People really do vote with their feet," Albert said. "It's a day when the street is free of traffic and people are just free to walk and schmooze with our neighbors."
Upper West Side's 2012 Street Fairs
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