Senegalese Street Vendors Struggle to Make a Living

by Jay Devineni, Senegalese Beat Reporter 

El Hadji Malick Seck, a Senegalese street vendor, waits for customers in front of his merchandise at 37th Street and Sixth Avenue.

As rain clouds begin to gather over midtown Manhattan, Senegalese street vendors make a splash with tourists.  By the time the rain begins to fall, sightseers and shoppers are unlikely to miss the Senegalese merchants trying to sell them umbrellas.

“All New Yorkers have umbrellas, but tourists come, and they don’t have umbrellas,” said Doudou Faye, a Senegalese street vendor at the intersection of 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue.  “It’s an easy way to tell them apart.”

Although the rain one recent afternoon provided a temporary boost in business, umbrellas aren’t the only thing that Senegalese street vendors peddle.  They also sell many different kinds of hats, handbags, scarves, and shawls.  Like many fashion accessories sold in America, most of these items are made in various Asian countries.

El Hadji Malick Seck, a Senegalese vendor at 37th Street and Sixth Avenue, rents his own space on the side of a deli, where he hangs up all his merchandise.  He pays the owner of the deli $300 a week and pays a separate landlord $365 a week to store his goods in a nearby basement overnight.  Seck has been selling wares in New York City for 33 years.  In addition to the usual hats and scarves, he also has space to sell plenty of clothing.  But the extra space doesn’t necessarily mean extra sales.

“From when I got here at 10 to now, I did not make a single dollar,” said Seck as the sun was setting one recent fall night.

Seck said that he gets asked for directions much more often than he makes sales.  A typical hat from him costs $10, while a handbag could cost up to $30.  At those prices, he said, he would need to sell at least 10 items each day just to pay his rent and have money for food.  He also said that business has been slow for a long time, and that he currently owes money to the IRS, the New York State Department of Labor, and the landlord who stores his merchandise.

“Things were good for a while, then after 9/11, they got worse and worse,” he said.

Seck, along with many other Senegalese street vendors who have been struggling, said he thinks that economic hardship and a decrease in tourism after 9/11 are the reasons why business is slow.  Seck commutes from Harlem most days, but he occasionally sleeps in the storage basement to save time.  He said he arrives around 9 or 10 o’clock every morning to begin his workday and doesn’t leave until 10:30 at night.  Despite his long workdays, he said he doesn’t leave to go eat because he doesn’t have any employees to watch his merchandise.

“I eat once in the morning and that’s it,” he said.

Even though the work is difficult, Seck said that peddling is the only thing that most Senegalese immigrants know how do to.  In Senegal, he said, people know how to trade things, and that is the best skill they have in the American job market.  In addition, he said that it is very difficult to change jobs because of the current economic climate.

“There is nothing else to do.  No one can get jobs,” he said.

Faye, however, suggests that the current street vendors might be the lucky ones.

“There is a very long waitlist to get permits,” said Faye.  “It has been like that since something like 1994, and most people never get off it.  You can’t get a permit now unless you’re a veteran.”

In order to sell goods in a public place like many of the Senegalese people do, one must obtain a general vendor license from New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs.  General vendor licenses were once distributed liberally, but now, only honorably discharged U.S. military veterans and spouses or domestic partners of honorably discharged U.S. military veterans can apply for a general vendor license.  These applicants do not have to wait on the waiting list.  In addition, they are not required to pay the license fee.  The license fee is $100 for people who apply from Oct. 1 to March 30 and $200 for people who apply from March 31 to Sept. 1.

New York City law also requires that the Department of Consumer Affairs issues no more than 853 general vendor licenses to non-veterans at one time.  According to a study by the Urban Justice Center, the waiting list has been closed to new non-veteran applicants since 1991, and there are currently 3,133 people on the waiting list.  Faye, who is not a veteran, got off the list in 1992 after years of waiting.

And if getting a license wasn’t hard enough, vendors need to apply for license renewal every year, which costs $200.  They also need to meet certain tax requirements.  Fortunately for the Senegalese community, the Senegalese Association in America, located in Central Harlem, provides resources for them.

“For business people, we have, once in a while, a seminar with Consumer Affairs and the Small Business Administration to help them know how to properly function with their businesses,” said Papa Sette Drame, President of the Senegalese Association in America.

Drame said that many Senegalese immigrants look to the Senegalese Association in America for help finding a job, and about 85 percent of Senegalese workers are street vendors, taxi drivers, or hairstylists.  No matter what the occupation, one thing seems to be true about Senegalese immigrants.

“My people are good people,” said Seck.  “They come here and work hard.”

Many Senegalese immigrants live by the adage, “hard work pays off.”  For street vendors, hard work pays, but evidently not that well.

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