Sunset Park: Street Vendors vs. Gentrification

As the sun peered through a cloudy afternoon Saturday, Lizette Canongo, 20, and her mother, Gabriela, sold the last of their tinga—a specialty of stewed, shredded chicken from Puebla, Mexico, her mother’s home state—at Sunset Park in Brooklyn.

Just blocks away, they had made the food out of their kitchen through their fledgling business, LG Casera, abbreviated for Canongo’s and her mother’s first names. The enterprise started when Canongo, a college student with a two-year-old son, became unemployed during the pandemic. Together, the mother-daughter duo took to selling homemade Poblano meals from their front door.

But on Saturday, vendors like LG Casera were doing more than selling food at the park, for which the neighborhood of Sunset Park takes its name. They had a message: they said they sought to fend off gentrification in the historically immigrant neighborhood. “This is us claiming back our land,” said Canongo, a lifelong Sunset Park resident.

Organized by Mexicanos Unidos, an advocacy group for the Mexican diaspora based in Sunset Park, participants called the event space “Plaza de Tonatiuh,” in honor of the Aztec sun god. The label was meant to harken back to the plazas that serve as community gathering places in Latin America. Organizers said they hope to continue such events as the weather warms.

“In order to combat gentrification, you have to be able to localize your economy,” said Brian Garita, 24, the chair of Mexicanos Unidos.

The Plaza de Tonatiuh event featured about a dozen vendors, including artisans, dessert makers, and a taquero. A pop-up thrift shop set up as well, and said its proceeds would go to people experiencing homelessness, via Colectiva Verde, a feminist group.

Organizers didn’t get permits from the city of New York to host the park outing, and this wasn’t an oversight. Rather, the lack of a permit was meant to show solidarity with street vendors who, until recently, had to deal with a cap on city licenses, which made it difficult for entrepreneurs to enter official commercial channels. Another reason for solidarity: Vendors, many of whom are Latino immigrants, have faced attacks during the pandemic, including a California food vendor shot and killed a week ago.

Briefly, police officers stopped by the event, where the vendors set up tables and clothing racks and played music along a portion of the promenade. Officers soon left, however.

Two people dance at a Sunset Park event meant to protest gentrification of the historically immigrant neighborhood. (Photograph by Eduardo Cuevas for NY City Lens)

Sunset Park is also the hub of Brooklyn’s Chinese community, as well as large populations of Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, Ecuadorians, and Dominicans. The neighborhood’s diversity is most visible at the park on weekends. Vendors line the walkways selling snacks, including ice cream, chips, fruit, and churros, as people take in views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

As with Canongo, of LG Casera, street vending has been a way for lower income, often immigrant households to make an income. In Sunset Park, residents also struggle with rising rent. Nearly 32% of residents spend more than half their income on rent in the community district encompassing Sunset Park, slightly higher than Brooklyn and New York City overall, according to a study in September by the Fifth Avenue Committee, a South Brooklyn nonprofit organization. City officials have identified Sunset Park as one of 17 gentrifying neighborhoods, with Latino and Asian families being displaced by white residents.

Although New York City lifted a nearly 40-year-old cap on street vendors in January, the process will take time to register businesses, said Rodrigo Camarena, a candidate for City Council in Sunset Park who formerly led the local nonprofit, Mixteca Organization, which serves Latino immigrants. Meanwhile some vendors say they have felt harassed by police and other city agencies who often couldn’t communicate with them because of language barriers, Camarena said. “Our city agencies have a long way to go before street vendors can feel safe and included in our city’s economy and our city’s streetscape,” he said.

At the park, María Sánchez, 27, a teacher in Queens, reminisced with some of her former high school students, who were from Sunset Park, over food. Like Sunset Park, Sánchez’s hometown neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, is experiencing gentrification, as historically Mexican American and other Latino families are pushed out.

Now, Sánchez worries about the families she once taught—who were hard-hit this past year by COVID-19 on top of rising rents a. “Especially now in the pandemic, we need events like this so that our gente can keep making money,” she said, “you know, keep the hustle going.”