Few things can pit Riverdalians against their neighbors with the speed and vehemence of a food cart. Whether in a Facebook group or muttered about in the corner store, it seems there are only two opinions about street food vendors showing up in the neighborhood: general acceptance or intense indignation.
Yet the man at the center of the most recent outrage tended his pushcart placed carefully on a Johnson Avenue sidewalk with a defiant air.
“Police come and check the license and they check the permit and everything else, and guess what?” Mohammed Mahalawi asked. “We stay here because we follow the rules and the law.”
Indeed, as his employees fried up onions and sliced slow roasted lamb for a line of eager customers, a small brigade of parking enforcement officers monitored the cart, its position on the sidewalk, and how long Mahalawi had left his truck nearby.
“When I come here, I see people who are with us, and people who are not with us,” Mahalawi said. “I see everybody in the area, and with some there is racism and harassment.”
The previous day, there were hundreds of comments on a photo of his cart posted to a Riverdale Facebook group. Folks recognized him as the same fellow who parked a large green food truck in a Johnson Avenue parking spot to sell a month earlier. Officers with the 50th Precinct ushered him along after citing him for vending at a meter.
When he returned with the smaller pushcart, the Facebook group erupted with complaints. People expressed concern a pushcart would undersell nearby restaurants. Others believed such vendors are eyesores and encouraged eaters to throw their trash on the street instead of a can. Many commenters called food carts “filthy” and “unsanitary.”
Some took umbrage that food carts would park in Riverdale, where they said such things were not allowed, as opposed to areas like Inwood and Washington Heights nearby. Comments stating food carts only belonged in the “ghetto” of largely immigrant neighborhoods irked DePrator — a woman who insisted on being referred to by a single name — who stopped by Mahalawi’s cart for a quick lunch.
“I went up against that, asking, ‘What are you saying?’ Because it seems that they think anything different is ‘ghetto,’ which was the word (one Facebook commenter) used,” she said. “You know they’re not saying Washington Heights. They’re saying the culture of the people in Washington Heights. It’s the same way people say ‘down the hill.’ There’s a whole inference to that.”
About 50 years ago, most people in the neighborhood were Jewish. When DePrator and her family moved to Riverdale in the 1970s, she said her son was one of two African Americans at P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen School. She heard the same kind of language from the older teachers who said the neighborhood school wasn’t prepared to handle “those” kinds of students. They eventually resigned their posts, DePrator said, rather than accept that Riverdale wasn’t closed off from the rest of the city.
Decades later, this fight continues. This time, it’s a halal cart that has some steaming mad and bemoaning how things have changed.
“The truth is that you should want more,” DePrator said. “The more you know about other cultures, the stronger our neighborhood is.”
Around the corner at Regal Pharmacy, Sarah Perlman understands folks are just trying to make a living. But the community should step up and protect the businesses that have become their neighbors instead of those who breeze in and out when there’s a buck to be made.
“We have a lot of nice restaurants in the neighborhood,” Perlman said. The food cart “takes away from their business, I’m sure. We have places for the kids like the pizza store and Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts. So it’s not like the kids have no place to go.”
A common misconception about street food vendors is that they pay almost no overhead.
“There are the permits and licenses, the parking tickets, the propane, storage and the food itself,” said Sean Basinski with the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project. “If you have employees, you have to pay workers compensation same as restaurants do in order to get your license. You also have to prove when you renew your license that you’ve paid your taxes. Now restaurants don’t have to do that, but vendors do because of the bias and belief that they don’t pay taxes.”
According to Mahalawi, each employee per day costs him $250. Monthly cart rental is $6,000 with another $3,000 on top of that for storing it when not in use. He pays for fuel to haul the cart, and thousands more to stock it with fresh food.
“Once I pay my workers and I pay for food, it may be a little bit short,” Mahalawi said. “We’re stable, but once I pay the people and I pay for the meat, it could be short. We don’t make a profit yet.”
Some food cart vendors face an added expense that fewer people know about, Basinski said. There are a finite number of vendor permits, and those who hold them often charge exorbitant fees to “rent” the permit out to entry-level cart operators who want to break into the business. The city council has considered legislation that would make that practice illegal.
Councilman Andrew Cohen said he would consider the legislation, but only if it includes better enforcement.
“When I first got into office, I was not particularly knowledgeable about the issues facing street vendors, and was very, very unsympathetic,” Cohen said. “But after meeting with people like the Street Vendor Project and talking with actual street vendors, there are some real issues that need to be dealt with.”
A piece of legislation has been before the city council for several years that would end the black market use of vendor permits, while expanding the number of new ones available.
For now, Cohen said, as long as Mahalawi is properly licensed, permitted, and his cart positioned the required distance from other businesses, there isn’t a way to make him move.
And as long as hungry high school kids and employees on short lunch breaks come to him for a chicken over rice with white sauce, Mahalawi said he will make it work.
“I have the right to be here and I fight for the right,” he said. “I’m licensed and have all the right paperwork. I’m not going to leave yet. I follow the rules and the law the city makes, so I will stay here for now.”