Let’s make this an election issue no. 2 – Street Vendors

A Toronto hot-dog stand - not the work of the author.

There’s something missing from Montréal city streets, and no I’m not referring to the snow. That can wait.

In fact, if there’s any time of year to go out and see the mysterious street vendor, now’s about as close as we get to having this species in our midst. They can be located in their preferred habitat, our city streets and public spaces.

It’s factually inaccurate to say that Montréal is any way anti-vendor, it’s just that vendors are over regulated and mandated to be seasonal, in some cases by very old laws that have never been, in my mind, seriously considered nor critiqued. It all goes back to Mayor Drapeau, who got rid of the vendors by over-prosecuting them on a variety of oddball laws and regulations. Among many other things (see this great Montreal Mirror article from 2002) it was thought vendors impeded traffic, were generally unhygienic and were competing unfairly with sit-down restaurants. I fail to understand this last point – if you’re in line at a hot dog stand its because a sit-down restaurant is impractical, d’uh.

A few months back the Mayor was apparently considering lifting the general ban and allowing vendors this summer. Didn’t happen.

Vendor kiosk at Phillips' Square, Montréal - not the work of the author.

Now, you can find vendors in specific places. Some have licenses to run restaurants/bistros from a few well-maintained Vespasiennes (such as those at Carré St-Louis and Dorchester Square) or otherwise have small kiosks (like the 24-hr florist at Square Victoria). You can find artisanal vendors hawking their wears on most downtown and Old Port streets in the Summer, in addition to the oddball vendors lined up at the Tam-Tams on Sundays. Selling food is otherwise limited, as are myriad other services once common to our city and present in many other global cities. But on the whole, Montréal is severely handicapped in terms of its curb-side, small-scale and very public micro economy.

And in turn, this handicaps our city and citizens. What if the City established its own ‘crown corporation’ to oversee the establishment of a local micro economy based on small-scale enterprises, such as street-side food and artisanal vendors. The City would establish strict health, labour and pricing regulations and hire agents to ensure the highest standards of quality were met in this regard. This same City-run corporation could then fund additional projects to develop new ‘Vespasiennes’ in various public spaces, and ensure they can be run year-round.

Tavern on the Green, Central Park NYC, not the work of the author.

I mean, imagine if every park in the city had its own ‘Tavern on the Green’ – a restaurant or bistro operating year round, and in some cases, all day. It would guarantee a safe place in every public space, and further add to improving the social traffic of the city by guaranteeing the use of public spaces. You can imagine, just in terms of food services alone, many new enterprises could be created; some will be successful enough to support many part-time workers (which will be ideal for students) while others could be ideal ‘start-ups’ for recent immigrants.

But let’s take this a step further. This city is in dire need of public rest facilities, such as those you might find in Paris. I like the Parisian examples I saw, since they were generally clean and attended. I discovered that in some cases maintaining a public rest facility was a small-scale enterprise in and of itself (of course, the City of Paris built the facility) and could support a family. The attendant kept the place spic and span and usage was tip based. He also provided traveller size grooming accessories, cologne and perfume, gum, smokes etc. In one such facility I saw, you could rent a towel and locker and go have a shower. In another, the attendant was also a seamstress and could do rapid alterations, clean up stains etc. I was amazed at the convenience, and the fact that these businesses thrive on convenience and are thus not a direct threat to established ‘store-front’ businesses. Moreover, the overhead for many of the vendors I saw and spoke with was exceptionally low given that the biggest cost (i.e. – the Kiosk or Vespasienne) was taken care of by the City. They never expected to get rich off these businesses, but then again, they didn’t want to. These are jobs and enterprises that provide.

Think of all the different possibilities. What will the News Stand of the future look like? Fewer newspapers is certain, but magazine sales are up. People will want to download content onto their tablets and smartphones, perhaps as much as they’ll need to recharge their devices. And the News Stand may become new sources for dissemination of small-scale publications that can’t get distributed otherwise.

A Montréal Vespasienne - locally, a Camilienne - not the work of the author.

There’s no two ways about it, the City would have to invest in this, to build the infrastructure and ensure high-quality services can be maintained. There may even be an initial loss, but I’m certain that by providing the initial start-up capital, the City would gain in the long term by establishing an entirely new service economy. More businesses, more business being done – the indirect economic stimulation would likely be larger than the direct benefits. New jobs and new opportunities for our citizens, and that’s not all. In addition to providing myriad services, these same businesses also ensure the safety of the citizens and cleanliness of the city, since it is in the proprietors best interest to do so.

So what can I say? I think this is a winner and ought to be an election issue in 2013. What do you think? What are your thoughts on the vendors we currently have? What would you like to see, and what do you think of street side vendors in other major cities? Have I painted an overly rosy picture? Any old timers actually remember what it was like to have vendors in the city?

Let me know,