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The Invisible Hands Feeding New York

Nancy Chuang | United States

At 21, Mohamed from Egypt is already a veteran of the workforce. He works 12-hour overnight shifts for a halal cart business, but hopes to save up enough to rent his own permit. He is also studying to drive, to have the option of a career change.

New York’s street food vendors are both ubiquitous and ignored. With an estimated 20,000 street vendors in the city but only 3,000 permits, new vendors must rent permits at exorbitant black-market rates up to $25,000 biennially, barely breaking even each year. To recoup costs, vendors can’t risk selling unique foods, and cluster in areas where they compete for the same customers. Some choose quieter neighborhoods to avoid police, which limits their sales.

I focus on immigrant food cart vendors, as their issues differ from vendors who sell wearables, who are not immigrants, or have trucks. Gaining trust has been a years-long process, and vendors currently suffer during NYC’s lockdown which I cannot photograph. In addition to direct interviews, I’ve worked with social justice organizations that fight for labor rights through actions and government meetings, and promote vendors’ well-being and business skills.

In today's climate, low-wage immigrants are demonized, or rendered invisible by their jobs. These are human faces for a larger immigration story, humans who raise families selling $2 packets of nuts.

As a visible American minority who spent years working with vulnerable migrants on the Thailand-Myanmar border, I am fascinated by migration and diaspora communities. This project, exploring a community linked by job style rather than common nationality, has been intentionally slow, shot on film and printed in a traditional darkroom. Through interviews, observations, and a great deal of patience, I have built relationships with owners of New York’s smallest businesses and watched their stories evolve. This hard work is too often ignored, but it feeds our city.

Street Vendor Project (Urban Justice)

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