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).
New York City Souvenirs – Unbelievable Low Prices!!
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