New York

The Brooklyn Bridge Is Not for Sale, or for Selling Souvenirs Anymore

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: N.Y Times
January 2, 2024 at 20:45
James Estrin/The New York Times
James Estrin/The New York Times

Illegal trinket vendors flooded the pedestrian walkway over the East River during the pandemic. The city has banned the stalls as of this week.

A tourist from Lyon, France, named Steven Heng visited the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday not just to take in the celebrated peaked arches, the trellis of wire rope and the panoramic views. He also came to shop — before it was too late.

Tuesday was the last day for scores of souvenir vendors who have sprung up illegally along the footpath, turning the bridge into a 6,000-foot-long mall across the East River. New city rules designed to ease congestion on the bridge effective Wednesday will ban vending from this and all the city’s 789 bridges.

Back in France, Mr. Heng, 33, who works in a restaurant, had 20 friends expecting trinkets from his trip; he’d read about the vendor clear-out and hustled to the bridge. “We’re buying everything,” he said, clutching two ornaments featuring the Empire State Building in a wreath and a mini Statue of Liberty that he had nabbed, all for just $10. “This is so much cheaper than Times Square.”

Two mannequin heads with novelty hats with long floppy ears
Tourists crossing the bridge can choose from among Empire State Building paperweights, Yankees caps and whatever these are.Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times

On weekends, nearly 35,000 people a day may cross the footpath over the 141-year-old bridge connecting Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. Over the river, the wooden-planked pedestrian walkway is about 16 feet across, and since 2021, it is free of bicycle traffic.But there are frequent bottlenecks; near the shoreline and around the stanchions, the walkway can be as narrow as five feet. Combine that constricted space with tourists loitering before an array of stuffed sloths with I ♥ NY embroidered on their chests, paintings of Marvel superheros recreating the 1932 “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”photo and a bobblehead of the disgraced New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the walkway frequently comes to a complete standstill.

After the city barred bikes from the promenade, moving them to a protected lane on the roadway below, the newly cleared space allowed vendors to flourish. Sean O’Brien, a guide with Inside Out Tours, recalled dodging cyclists and applauded the city’s latest move to eject the vendors. While they don’t crash into anyone, he occasionally loses a client who gets lost in souvenir shopping along the way, he said.

Even licensed vendors will be barred from the bridge under the new rule, though many of those selling tchotchkes are unlicensed. (Some estimates have put the numbers of street sellers at more than 20,000, though the city maintains a cap of only about 6,000 licenses, most of them for food vendors.) On Christian Acosta’s final day of selling hats and King Kong statuettes, he feared for what would happen to his fellow vendors, particularly since so few can obtain licenses to legally sell elsewhere. There are others who will suffer, he said in Spanish: “their families.”


Statuettes of the Empire State Building among several featuring King Kong.
As of Jan. 3, those wanting a statuette of King Kong will have to look somewhere other than the footpath of the Brooklyn Bridge.Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times

The wares being offered on the bridge are a reflection of the city itself. A single table near the Manhattan side held Greek evil-eye amulets, Mexican maracas, Chinese yin-yang medallions and Middle Eastern Hands of Fatima. The vendors chatted with one another in Wolof, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and more. Many vendors are undocumented, with just enough command of English to haggle.

“It’s a pity,” said Gary Randle, 45, who works in renewable energy and was visiting from Wales, in response to the news. “These people are trying to make a living. I’m all for it.”

But Muhammed Abbas, 30, disagreed. In his home in Kafr El Dawar, Egypt, just outside of Alexandria, the bridges are choked with street hawkers. “I’m not for it,” he said — a funny position for him to take, considering he himself earns a living selling Yankees caps and bottle openers in the shape of the skyline on the bridge.

A man with a beard in a black winter coat stands on the bridge near a stall of tourist gifts for sale.
Muhammed Abbas sells on the bridge, but only until he can start dental school. Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times 

Dr. Abbas was a dentist in Egypt, and he said he didn’t mind the shutdown; this job was always temporary for him, until he could start dental school in the United States, the first step in obtaining an American dental license. “And then I can start my dreams,” he said.

Farther down the bridge was Luis Mendoza, 41, one of several people operating 3-D photo booths, where visitors can take a short video set to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” A sign stuck to the bridge banister across from where Mr. Mendoza plied his trade warned vendors in Spanish that anyone there past 11:59 p.m. that night would be removed. Starting Wednesday, Mr. Mendoza would concentrate on his second (much less fun) job as a contractor, he said.

“I will really miss being here,” Mr. Mendoza said in Spanish. “I will come as a tourist.”

Ana Ley contributed reporting.

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