For the past two months, Mohamed Awad has been issued a barrage of tickets from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation on a nearly daily basis. He has refused to move the last of the three food carts that he has operated outside Bella Abzug Park, on the corner of the 33rd Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, since 2015.
Since the grand opening of Hudson Yards’ first phase in 2019, Awad has been in a tug of war with the neighborhood’s business improvement district over his right to vend in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods.
According to Awad, his longtime struggle with the Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance, a nonprofit business improvement district that manages the public park on behalf of the City, hit its crescendo when HYHK began placing street carts it approves inside the park.
Although Awad operates on the sidewalk surrounding the park and not inside of it, he says that HYHK has been trying to claim the entirety of the park’s prime locations as its own and has been working in conjunction with the Parks Department to banish him from operating in Hudson Yards entirely.
“Who pays the salary of the Parks Department? It’s supposed to be me and you but I think the BID pays them,” said Awad. “The BID is supposed to be here to help the small business, so why are they pushing us out?”
Awad says he has legally operated three food carts selling kebabs, hotdogs and other snacks at Hudson Yards since 2015, long before the multi-billion dollar developments were completed. He’s proud that his cart has fed the hundreds of construction workers who built the neighborhood’s mega skyscrapers. To legally operate outside a park, Awad, whose street carts employ 15 people, including Egyptian immigrants and disabled U.S. military veterans, Awad possesses a Disabled Veterans Mobile Food Unit Vending Permit.
Working in partnership with disabled veterans, the permit legally allows Awad to set up shop on the sidewalks surrounding a public park. Because he doesn’t hold a general vending permit, Awad can’t operate anywhere else in the city except for the sidewalks surrounding a park.
Pedro Delgadillo, a disabled military veteran who works alongside Awad, says that vending in Hudson Yards has been his primary means of supporting himself.
“We’ve been here since before Hudson Yards even existed, feeding the construction workers,” he said. “And now that Hudson Yards is up and running, and after we’ve suffered – we’re being displaced because we don’t fit their vision. I served my country, why can they put us out of business so easily?
Although he is legally allowed to operate at that particular location, Awad and Delgadillo say that their issues began after Hudson Yards officially opened in 2019. On a nearly daily basis, Awad said he received fines from the NYPD, New York City Department of Health, New York City Department of Parks, and New York City Department of Sanitation. To discourage the vendors from operating on the sidewalk perimeter, Awad said the Parks department and HYHK began construction on landscape projects that were intended to squeeze them out such as planting flower and tree beds along the sidewalk as well as bolting down the garbage cans.
Although HYHK argues that the planting of trees is part of the over all development of Hudson Yards, Mohamed Attia, Managing Director of the Street Vendor Project, doubts that argument.
“They’re intentionally using the trees to displace the vendors, it’s a part of a big plan that the Hudson Yards Related Companies is leading to make the area vendor free,” he said. “Look across the street where in 2021, Related expanded tree beds to make them 12.5 foot long instead of 5 foot long only to displace the vendors. We have to be so naive to believe that this isn’t intentional?”
This year, Awad said HYHK has moved to completely rid the park of the independent street vendors, replacing them with Paradis in the Park, a chain of upscale coffee and food carts. The City granted HYHK the ability to hire sub-concessionaires to operate within and around the park. Since Awad already occupies three prime locations outside the park, he has been issued tickets daily by the Parks Department police for failing to move his carts. A Parks Department officer told Awad that he was ordered to issue a ticket a day until he moved his cart.
After being forced to remove two of his carts, he has refused to move his last remaining cart. Ensuring that he is not forced out, he has slept in his van most nights, rotating with his coworkers, and chained his cart to a lamppost with a padlock. Although diabetic, he has threatened to go on a hunger strike if he’s forced to move.
“I’m not going to give up easy. I have been here before Hudson Yards, and I was happy. No headache,” he said.
First opened in 2015, Bella Abzug Park was first conceived as a “high-end park” in 2012 by the Hudson Yards developers and was named after the civil rights activist, labor lawyer and former congresswoman who staunchly defended civil liberties.
The Parks Department agreed to help build the park as long as they would not have to manage its day-to-day maintenance, effectively handing over private control over public space. HYHK was specifically created to manage the park with Hudson Yards’ primary developers, Related Companies, and Oxford Properties, co-chairing HYHK’s board of directors.
According to Dan Scorse, HYHK’s Vice President of Operations, they are not displacing any street vendors in the park.
“HYHK is adding vendors to the park,” he said. “Paradis in the Park, the official park sub-concessionaire, has hired eight immigrant vendors and plans to expand. All of the vendors that typically operated at Bella Abzug Park before Paradis still have legal vending locations on the same block.”
Scorse as well as the Parks Department say that the vending permits that the City has issued HYHK date to 2018 and did specify the locations Awad currently occupies. This spring, the Parks Department allowed Paradis in The Park to operate six food carts in Bella Abzug Park.
Scorse and the Parks Department both stressed that Awad is not being pushed out of the park and is free to continue to vend further down the street.
“Our goal is to find an equitable solution for the Parks-permitted food vendors who will be coming to Bella Abzug Park, and the existing vendors that have frequented the area,” Izzy Verdery, Press Officer for the Parks Department said.
Awad said that if he were to relocate to where Scorse and Parks suggested, he would not be able to earn a living as that location has significantly less foot traffic.
Mohamed Attia believes that HYHK is ultimately trying to replace immigrant and veteran street vendors with vendors that conform to the luxury aesthetic of Hudson Yards.
“What’s absurd in this situation is how the city agencies are coming to the aid of billionaire real estate developers instead of small businesses,”he said. “Our issue is not with the new vendors, but with the Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance who are intentionally displacing vendors.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Awad stood in front of his cart recounting the daily interactions he has had with the Parks Department and displaying a fan of summonses he has been issued in the past week alone. Despite his frustrations, business at his cart has been good with a constant stream of summer tourists stopping at his cart for a bite to eat or a cold drink. His offerings are significantly less than what Paradis in The Park is offering with a similar menu.
Across the park at Paradis, business is noticeably slower. Although the odds of Awad being able to successfully take on the Hudson Yard’s developers are slim, he relishes in the small victory as he points up above.
“We are here and we are making business. They are here and they are making no business, this is god,” he said. “This is Allah.”