Times Square Spring Block Party

In New York City, most street fairs, block parties and festivals are a mixture of greasy food, shoddy merchandise and bewildered tourists. 

Visitors go to these events expecting to get a taste of local color, and instead find themselves surrounded by vendors hawking plastic jewelry, counterfeit designer purses, funnel cakes, bedsheets, flimsy t-shirts and tube socks. In other words, an assortment of items they could find at their local carnival, dollar store and Wal-Mart.

If you go to a dozen street fairs in a dozen different neighborhoods, chances are you’ll run into the same vendors with the same merchandise over and over again.

The reason for the tawdry mediocrity? Most street fairs, festivals and block parties held here (there are hundreds every year) are run by three large production companies: Mardi Gras Festival Productions, Clearview Festival Productions and Mort and Ray.

According to librarian Marcus Banks, the companies make it “easier both for the sponsoring organizations and for the vendors, by navigating what turns out to be a formidable permit process … [and help the sponsors and vendors] … obtain the necessary individual state and city permits they need. [They] also sell the vendors booths in the fairs … and, if vendors buy a booth at more than one fair, they get a discount, which is why the same vendors appear in festival after festival.”

Cutting through governmental red tape and bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing. However, these firms lack any incentive to include local merchants and craftsmen or diversify the types of vendors at the fairs. The result is aggravating to New Yorkers and confusing to tourists who show up at something called a “Harvest Festival” anticipating displays of fresh baked goods and ripe produce, not knockoff Dora the Explorer backpacks and tube socks.

There are, of course, exceptions to the bland homogeneity. The city still hosts fairs and festivals put on by community and cultural groups that want to celebrate their neighborhood’s individuality, character and, of course, cuisine. Those events, while harder to find each year, are always worth a special trip.

Summer is the prime time for street fairs and festivals, and today I stumbled across the first of the season. And so, since this is the only Mardi Gras/Clearview/Mort and Ray event I plan to attend this year, here is the Times Square Spring Block Party (including a picture of my favorite vendor).   

Barrier across 47th Street
Originally uploaded by annulla.

New York City Souvenirs – Unbelievable Low Prices!!
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Underwear Vendor
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Jewelry Any Item $2 & Up
Originally uploaded by annulla.

T-shirt vendor
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Toys & Knockoff Purses
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Shish-Ka-Bobs & Corn Dogs
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Times Square Psychic
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Sausage & Corn Dogs
Originally uploaded by annulla.

iPod Accessory Sale!
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Tube sock vendors
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Knock-off purses
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Tourists with shopping bags
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Mom & dad’s assistant vendor
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Gothamist: NYC Street Fairs are “Generic”
Gotham Gazette: Block Parties, Street Fairs, Street Festivals
Center for an Urban Future: Rethinking New York’s Street Fairs
Mardi Gras Festival Productions
Clearview Festival Productions
Mort and Ray

7 Responses to Times Square Spring Block Party

  1. photowannabe says:

    I found this fascinating, and so true. The same thing happens in San Francisco. Its even happened at local semi-annual Giant Flea market. We used to love to go and paruse everyones goodies and local baked goods. Now the booths are so expensive to rent that only the vendors you can see anyplace can afford to sell. Consequently its tube soxs, plastic do-dads, and cheap tools and gold chains. We don’t go anymore. A real waste of time.
    Loved your pictures of the Times Square Chaos. Not much different than what goes on everyday on that street.


  2. Very interesting to read, that it is so difficult to navigate the permit process. Turns a gethtogether among neighbors into big business.
    A far cry from the neighborhood block parties I know from Washington, DC, where neighbors put out some tables and benches, add a Weber kettle, or three, and voila’, block party!
    I am not sure, if they do block parties here in Vienna, I have come upon neighborhood farmer’s markets, church fairs, and the like, but nothing that resembled an American block party.
    But then, I am a newcomer, and who knows what’s going on, deep in Vienna neighborhoods. 😉


  3. I totally agree!! I used to get excited about the upcoming street fairs but now, I stay away from them as much as possible. But I still visit smaller, local festivals or fairs like the Union Square Green Market. In fact, there is a small block party in my neighborhood next weekend. I saw the church hanging a “Strawberry Festival” sign outside the door.


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