the year i ate new york

The Street Vendors Fighting for a Space in Sunset Park

Plaza Tonatiuh is a spirit and the spirit is resilient.

The group, currently operating out of a parking lot on Second Avenue, opens at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Photo: Jorge Garcia
The group, currently operating out of a parking lot on Second Avenue, opens at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Photo: Jorge Garcia

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On a recent Sunday, I walked toward the industrial wilds of Sunset Park, past the overhang of Belt Parkway. There were mostly warehouses and broken sidewalks — a crosswalk sign hung upside down like a drunk. It’s a part of Brooklyn where restaurants have come and died because there’s nowhere to take root. And yet a collective of vendors known as Plaza Tonatiuh has taken up residence in an empty lot behind a shuttered pizza shop and transformed it into the kind of open-air market you would see in Mexico City. Suddenly, there’s music, dancing, cooking, and feasting. A DJ plays cumbia as dozens of vendors, mostly Mexican and Latin American immigrants, sell their handiwork (jewelry, crocheted tops) and cooking. There’s elote, pupusas, atole de granillo, and a rainbow of aguafrescas in watermelon, lime, coconut, and passionfruit. There are signs all around, including a bright hand-painted poster that reads “Viva la mujer trabajadora” and print-outs advertising a fundraiser for back-to-school supplies for the kids. “It’s a village thing,” says Brian Garita, one of the lead organizers. “We take care of each other now.”

Plaza Tonatiuh got its start in 2021 on the south-central side of Sunset Park itself (as in the park, not just the neighborhood), where there was more space to stretch out. At first, there were just nine vendors, but it went well so word went around, and it became a Sunday fixture and an economic and cultural anchor for the neighborhood. In 2022, Plaza Tonatiuh ended the season with 86 vendors and a Día de los Muertos celebration. “The Plaza not only helped us economically, but emotionally, because we’re more like family,” says Ana, a Sunset Park resident of 30 years, who makes a killer Michoacán-style birria at Taquitos Layla, named after her youngest. “It was something spectacular. Everyone said that if we continued like this the Plaza would become a tourist attraction.”

Instead, on April 2, the Parks Enforcement Patrol, clad in army green, and the NYPD in blue were ready and waiting for the group’s kickoff. They said that they had received complaints “that the large footprint of the illegal vending prevents park patrons from using the park on Sundays.” (Who, exactly, is a park patron? Joggers? Dogs?) They prevented the vendors, around 40 in total, from setting up. Plaza returned the following Easter Sunday to celebrate with a Puerto Rican drum circle and egg hunts, only to be ejected again for unlawful assembly. A year earlier, the cops had come by to eat tacos.

It would be impossible to try everything in one trip. Photo: Jorge Garcia

The expulsion of Plaza Tonatiuh from its first home was a precursor for the more publicized recent sweep of unlicensed vendors in Corona Plaza in July, which also boomed as people lost work during the pandemic. “Plaza Tonatiuh started as a product of the economic crisis,” says Garita. He grew up in the neighborhood and saw how hard COVID hit his community of Mexican and Latin American immigrants. People lost their jobs — many worked in restaurants and cleaned houses — so they resorted to selling from their stoops. Plaza Tonatiuh was a way to keep money circulating within the community. “These were people who did not get unemployment, didn’t get a stimulus, who would be considered excluded workers,” he says.

“Delays in bureaucracy, which sadly is the story of street vending, really brought about the situation that we have now,” says Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project. “We see more resources going towards enforcement for a system that has long been inaccessible. Meanwhile, they’re still not issuing the new supervisory licenses for food vendors.” The Adams administration has indeed been slow to expand legal street vending: Since 1983, the number of licenses has been capped at 5,100; the City Council passed legislation to license vendors at a clip of 445 each year beginning July 2022, but according to the DOH, just 100 have been approved so far. Meanwhile, the city has empowered other agencies like Parks and Sanitation to police vending alongside the NYPD.

None of this changes the hard reality of needing to make money now, which is how Plaza Tonatiuh found temporary shelter in a warehouse on Second Avenue, and later, the unused lot across the street. The merch vendors with leather goods, basketball jerseys, Sanrio plushies, and Dragon Ball Z figurines were along the perimeter of the warehouse, and the food vendors set up in the lot. At the entrance draped over an orange barricade was a green banner of an eagle spreading mid flight with Puerto Rico and Palestine written on its wings: “Dos Alas del mismo pájaro” — two wings of the same bird. Plaza Tonatiuh is an idea as much as a place.

Photo: Jorge Garcia
Photo: Jorge Garcia

There were too many stands to eat everything, but I endeavored. One woman said she was driving back home to Bay Ridge when she saw the tents, and I saw her putting in orders at various stands until she emerged with an armload of al pastor tacos and bags of chicharrones de harina. “Here you’re getting it from Mom!” she says. I headed for a vendor with a vase of verdant pápalo on their table, who told me to try a leaf: “It’ll make your breath smell good.” I ordered a pambazo and got my fingers stained red with guajillo. There were families fanning themselves; a cycling group had also made this a pitstop on one of their rides. I gazed longingly at the margaritas people were holding and agreed that it was that time. “Strong?” the vendor asked me, and I nodded as she poured another shot from a plastic water bottle into a terracotta cantarito rimmed with Tajín and served with a tamarind candy straw.

I moseyed over to other stands: I got chalupas, fried red and green that hit that highly specific midpoint between wet and crispy; fries fried in chorizo-colored oil; some al pastor tacos at a jury-rigged spit; and a huitlacoche quesadilla — the savory black fungus that’s still a rarity in New York. I had eaten too much, but then saw bubbling clay pots filled with braised chicharrón and pork ribs with verdolaga. A DJ had started their set and was playing “La Medusa” by DJ X’ces, and the mezcal was settling into my blood. I ordered the ribs to take home, and the cook, Martín, told me to take a seat on one of the portable camping chairs next to his daughter. She was sipping on hibiscus water as she confided, “My dad makes the best food.”

Photo: Jorge Garcia

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The Street Vendors Fighting for a Space in Sunset Park