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Informal Urbanism: Legal Ambiguity, Uncertainty, and the Management of Street Vending in New York City


In New York City conflict over street vending has evolved over the years, reflecting the political, economic, and social context of particular eras. This dissertation is focused primarily on the current era of vending regulation in New York and, more broadly, is concerned with the ways in which urban subjects are managed and urban space administered under neoliberalism. In New York, rather than being regulated in a straightforward manner that is guided by formal laws, the practice of street vending is managed informally on the part of store owners, building managers, police officers, even vendors themselves. The key mechanism through which this informal management occurs is legal ambiguity and uncertainty created by complex and convoluted vending laws, which leave vendors open to harassment and intimidation, particularly in high-value, central areas of the city under the control of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). As vendors learn through experience the blocks or streets where they will receive the most harassment, they eventually police themselves, gravitating to parts of the city where property interests have less resources or influence to maintain effective control over vending. This produces a landscape of street vending where the spatial distribution of vendors is shaped less by actual laws, and is more of a reflection of the power, influence and resolve of individual property owners and property organizations such as BIDs. Through the case of street vending management, this study adds to our knowledge of spatial management in U.S. cities by showing the ways in which legal uncertainty and ambiguity can play a critical role in structuring space. For vendors, New York is not a city of clearly defined legal partitions or walls, but one of dispersed, shifting, and variegated regulations.

The dispersed and variegated nature of vending management also opens up opportunities for challenges and contestation. Vendors, despite mostly lacking citizenship and formal voting rights, nevertheless use a variety of tactics and strategies to contest their current situation. Vendors' political strategies focus heavily on demystifying vending regulations and holding the city and its enforcement agents accountable to the letter of the law. Where legal uncertainty and informal enforcement norms are some of the main tools used to control the spatiality of vending, clarifying murky regulations and demanding regularized enforcement, somewhat paradoxically, becomes a key strategy of resistance.

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