As the twentieth century advanced the voices who sought to wipe it out entirely were those of privileged political and business interests, and those who constructed the 'modern' city as clean and organised, thereby stereotyping street trading as dirty, disorganised, and 'counter-modern'. The calls for both regulation and elimination of street markets were based largely on the view that the street's purpose was for the free-flow of people and commodities, as opposed to a location for social and economic activity. The open markets, those that came to be labelled by public officials as ‘the push-cart evil’, contradicted the vision of what New York’s business and civic leaders: new commercial spaces, office towers, and busy road and highway systems (Bluestone, 1997).
The era when a concerted and overt crack down happened in New York occurred under a civic administration was labelled Progressive, but promoted a business-style civic model, an ethos that ethos through current neoliberal reforms to urban governance. With time the focus shifted from concern with obstruction and congestion to the problem of ‘appearances’ (Bluestone, 1997). Street markets and street traders were accused of ‘stigmatising’ neighbourhoods, thereby forging a perceived, erroneous link that, sadly, persists to this day between their presence and the threat of reduced property values (Bluestone, 1997; Taylor et al, 2000).
The continued presence of pushcarts on the city's streets as New York prepared to host the World’s Fair in 1939 did not conform to the official image of the modern commercial metropolis (Bluestone,1997), nor did they confirm the official vision of ‘modern’ New York as a capital of commerce (Berman, 1988; Bluestone, 1997) the city hoped to portray. It is also likely that a ban was favoured by civic officials in New York of the 1930s because of prevailing economic decline during the world-wide depression. Pushcart traders, visible on the streets and in large numbers in their open markets, became what Bluestone (1997) believes officials saw as a reminder of the failure of America's economy. As the date of the World’s Fair moved closer, the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, moved to abolish all street trading, even the traders who were licensed (Taylor et al, 2000) in an effort to showcase New York as a modern, prospering city (Bluestone, 1997).
Opposition to an outright ban was silenced by the insistence of LaGuardia’s administration that purpose-built, enclosed markets would replace the open street markets (Bluestone, 1997). In 1934 sixty open markets were operating, and 7000 pushcart ‘itinerant’ licenses were held; by 1939 only seventeen markets were operating and approximately 1000 licenses were held (Bluestone, 1997). The purpose-built markets promised by LaGuardia only housed a fraction of those displaced from more than forty street markets (Bluestone, 1997). In response to complaints that there was not enough space for these small traders, Mayor LaGuardia insisted that they should move into established shops (Bluestone, 1997), reinforcing further the notion that retail commerce itself could be gentrified.
In a report compiled in 1936, LaGuardia’s Commissioner of Public Markets wrote that he sought to convert the “pushcart pedlar to a small merchant with self-respect and banking relations” (qtd. Bluestone, 1997). The pushcart, he continued, had “outlived its usefulness in this day of modern, quick, sanitary distribution of food”. In his exhibit at the World’s Fair, LaGuardia’s Commissioner of Public Markets included a section in his exhibit entitled “The Life and Death of the PushCart” (Bluestone, 1997).
The case of New York and its street traders is instructive in understanding more contemporary gentrification efforts in Asia as debtor nations there have positioned their cities as global 'financial capitals'. New York, as the metropolitan centre of capitalism for much of the twentieth century continues to stand as a capitalist development model, and its historic battle to erase its street traders has remarkable resonance for women street traders who count among the world's urban poor.
Bluestone, D., 1997. The pushcart evil. In: D. Ward, and O. Zunz, eds. 1997. The landscape of modernity: New York City, 1900-1940. New York: JHU Press. pp. 287–312.
Stansell, C., 1986. City of women: sex and class in New York, 1789-1860. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Taylor, D.S., Fishell, V.K., Derstine, J.L., Hargrove, R.L., Patterson, N.R., Moriarty, K.W., Battista, B.A., Ratcliffe, H.E., Binkoski, A.E., Kris-Etherton, P.M., 2000. Street foods in America—a true melting pot. In: A. P. Simopoulos, R. V. Bhat, eds. 2000. Street foods. Basel, Switzerland: Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers. pp. 25–44.