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Nuisance, necessity or evolution?

Published: 
Sunday, May 6, 2018
Vending on Charlotte Street…
Flashback: A vendor sells toys on Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain, during the busy Christmas season in December last year. PICTURE ANISTO ALVES

Last week, Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain vendors fought against being relocated to George and Nelson Streets, on the property of the old Angostura Bond. They argued the area was unsafe and would deter customers. After much toing and froing between vendors and Port-of-Spain Mayor Joel Martinez, they finally got their way after the mayor admitted he erred in not consulting them after the decision was taken by the City Corporation in March. The decision to move the vendors was deemed critical as the Port-of-Spain City Corporation wanted to move on with the Central Business District Revitalisation Programme initiative. So what happens now? Are we really in a vending conundrum? Who is right and who is wrong?

Today, the Sunday Guardian looks into the issue by chatting with several stakeholders.

The Perspectives…

Traffic engineer Adande Piggott (Ministry of Works and Transport)

Traffic engineer Adande Piggott says vending on Charlotte Street is not ideal from a traffic and safety perspective. He said the ministry has received countless complaints from the police; fire service, ODPM and the EHS regarding the hazard vending on Charlotte Street can cause during emergencies.

“Depending on the type of emergency, in a congested city, the possibility is there to increase the number fatalities as the ability to respond and evacuate will be seriously challenging,” Pigott told the Sunday Guardian.

“We are first responders. When we are unable to respond in real time because of obstructions, people can die. A real case scenario was the person who died on Charlotte Street because the ambulance could not move. The ambulance was coming and a vendor stalled them because that vendor refused to move.”

I think many efforts have been made to try and fix the issue, and we as law-abiding citizens and the law-making entity for roadworks, we still try to put things in place, but I want to remind us that roadside vending is illegal. If the city has vacant land, vending can be permitted there.”

He said to start to address the problem, walking spaces need to be created for pedestrians.

“As it is right now, vehicles are clashing with pedestrians because of the vendors’ set up. That from a traffic perspective ought not to happen, especially when there are designated places for them to walk but they can’t.”

He added: “When you look at the economics behind it, it’s a huge economic and manpower loss. For vendors to make a couple hundred dollars does that warrant shutting down of a city?

He said he was not against vending in the capital, but said it must be done in a suitable location. Noting that a flea market set-up would be good, he said,”Whatever decision is made, I think somebody has to make a serious one. Either it is closed off totally and vendors are relocated to a much suitable area, or designate days strictly for vending and no vehicular traffic. But at present I do not agree to the angle they are at. I want to see more order; I want to see more pedestrian activity first and vehicular movement freely in the city streets.”

Economist Indera Sagewan-Ali

Economist Indera Sagewan-Ali says vending in the capital has both an upside and downside for any economy.

She said, “It’s part of a country’s cultural ethos. People like shopping on the street; they believe there are deals to be got that they may not get at a store. They understand that the vendor has little overheads; people can bargain on the streets for better prices.

“It gives a sense of accomplishment when one is able to beat down to price, way below what you may have been willing to pay for it in the first place. So there is the happiness factor to the consumer.”

Sagewan-Ali also gave positives and negatives to vending.

Positives:

* It creates job opportunities for persons in the lower echelons of society. Where basic jobs are not available in an economy, many people turn to vending to feed their families and meet their other bills.

* It allows brick and mortar stores to engage in price differentiating in order to get rid of excess or old stocks. So the store sells at a higher price in store and allows the vendor with whom there is a relationship to sell cheaper outside, thus creating the opportunity to turn around merchandise faster.

* The vendors understand the concept of location is everything in such a business and so position themselves in places of high human traffic to maximise sales.

* It is an industry which engenders entrepreneurship and creativity and can sometimes lead to business expansion out of street vending into more established businesses.

*Organised properly, it can be a tourism product. In many parts of the developed world, this is a “looked forward to” destination for bargain hunting tourists.

* A viable option to a life of crime

Negatives:

* Unfair competition to businesses with high overheads, paying taxes etcetera

* Overcrowding of sidewalks, leaving no room for pedestrians who are now placed at risk having to walk on the roads.

* Can negatively affect the shopping experience for some customers who fear their presence and so legitimate business establishments can suffer.

* Criminal elements can use vending as a front for plying their real trades - possible drug trafficking, robbery etcetera.

But Sagewan-Ali believes at the end of the day it will be a matter of how the authorities organise the vending plan for the city.

“If we are to choose to maximise the benefits while mitigating the negatives, putting vendors in spaces with little or no traffic will simply not work, they will illegally ply where the customers are.

Ideally, the solution has to take into consideration all the variables to ensure that the vendors can earn a living, to do otherwise is pushing people into a life of crime or destitution,” she told the Sunday Guardian.

Historian, author and publisher Gerard “Gerry” Besson

Historian, author and publisher Gerard Besson told the Sunday Guardian that uncontrolled vending in that part of Port-of-Spain only really started in the 1960s going into the 1970s.

He said prior to this, in the 1940s and 50s, vending “was a very controlled thing as apart from the fact that much of that part of Port-of-Spain was very residential, the police on a whole and the city police in particular controlled cities.”

He said the vending we see today had its origin in the period of the Black Power uprising of 1970, when the streets of Independence Square became a vast vending place.

“Fundamentally, the social changes that happened with independence and the social changes in the wake of 1970 accommodated increasing vending. Another thing that facilitated vending and created more and more vendors was the 1960s and 1970s influx of people from the other islands,” Besson said.

“They settled largely in east Port-of Spain and along the east-west corridor, as well as other places. To survive, people had to do things like get into vending.”

He said the oil boom of the 1970s gave more people disposable income and more and more people were drawn to Charlotte Street, where they were also Chinese merchants and Syrian stores selling household fabrics and dress material.

“Therefore, it was a combination of the attraction of the retail stores along with the freedom that came with the Independence impulse and the freedom that came with the Black Power uprising and finally the influx of all those other people from the islands, all of this accommodated the vending phenomena.”

He noted that as opposed to the colonial period when the city council could just kick out vendors, in the post-independence period central governments have had to be far more accommodating and humanitarian in their approach on the whole to the citizenry of Port-of-Spain.

“Vending to the extent at which you see today has come about largely as a result of uncontrolled accommodation of the population, so it is more and more immigrants who came from abroad; a greater relaxation was placed on regulations with regards to the use of the streets and the pavements. Because the use of streets must have a lot of laws you know, a school of laws from how you hang the signs over the pavement to vending etcetera.”

But he said Charlotte Street has always offered the best prices.

“So all of this attracted people to increasingly set up little stalls and there was a symbiotic relationship between the store owners and the vendors. It was a kind of love-hate relationship. On the one hand they block their entrance, but on the other hand, they are giving them goods to sell on the pavement. So it was not a cut and dry thing that happened at all.”

He added: “We have to see it as a social evolution. I think people have to dispossess in the mind of this being good or bad, things evolve in all kinds of spontaneous ways. In London, Covent Market was a fast marketplace that sold flowers and was a kind of a slum and today it is a very high-class part of London.

“All this talk about bringing back Port-of Spain to what it used to be. Bring it back to what it used to be when? You can’t bring it back to what it used to be in the 1930s, because it was a different kind of city and a different sort of town...This is the evolution of a city…the dynamics of a city.”

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