Four months after New York City disbanded a celebrated but largely illegal street market in Queens that had exploded in popularity during the pandemic, the vendors are expected to return this week with far fewer stalls and, for now, none of the food that brought them acclaim.
The market at Corona Plaza, where more than 80 vendors once packed a block-wide public square every day, will reopen each Wednesday to Sunday with a rotating roster of just 14 stalls, the mayor’s office announced on Tuesday. For at least the first week, only merchandise vendors will return, because of additional health and safety requirements the food vendors must meet.
The Queens Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit business development group, said it had entered into a four-month contract with the city to manage the eclectic mix of vendors selling everything from tacos al pastor and aguas frescas to hard-to-find wares from Central and South America.
Sanitation and police officers had dispersed the vendors in late July, amid growing concerns from some local residents and businesses that the plaza was becoming overcrowded, unsanitary and harmful to brick-and-mortar stores.
To participate in the market under the new agreement, merchants must pay quarterly sales taxes and meet public safety requirements; food vendors must also complete a food safety course. Several of the vendors have already met the requirements, said Seth Bornstein, the group’s executive director.
The decreased number of stalls means that vendors who were once fixtures in the plaza will now appear much less frequently, forcing many of them to seek second jobs. And no more than 10 of the 14 stalls will be allowed to serve food at a time, the mayor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday.
The hope is to extend the contract, with the potential to add more vendors and longer hours of operation, said Rosario Troncoso, the president of the Corona Plaza Street Vendors Association, the organization that represents the merchants.
“This is just the beginning,” Ms. Troncoso said in Spanish, adding that she was disappointed with how few stalls would be returning.
Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that the arrangement balanced public health and safety with economic opportunities for the merchants.
But the plan is a drastic change for the vendors — most of them immigrant women, many of them undocumented — who found a lifeline in the informal marketplace after some lost retail and hospitality jobs during the height of the pandemic. In April, The New York Times called the plaza one of the best places to eat in the city.
To allow only a handful of vendors to return part-time “feels like a slap in the face,” said Ana Maldonado, 40, who ran a tamales stand in the plaza.
Ms. Maldonado, who came to New York 20 years ago from Guerrero, Mexico, would get up at 3 a.m. most days to mix the masa for over 200 tamales. When business was good, she could take home about $4,000 a month.
Her makeshift stall — a shopping cart with two steamer pots and thermoses filled with rice pudding and champurrado, a Mexican chocolate drink — provided her family’s entire income.
She has had to borrow from family and friends to pay her $2,500-a-month rent since it was shut down. Her husband had to start working part-time as a waiter as she searched for other spots in the city to reopen her cart.
“There is a lot of anger” among the vendors, she said.
Since city officials cracked down on the plaza, the vendor association has lost 15 members, with several of them relocating to other neighborhoods, Ms. Troncoso said.
The city’s plan could nevertheless become a model for other informal markets across New York, where vendors often operate illegally because they are unable to obtain permits, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, a merchant organizing group.
The permits are nearly impossible to get. As of September, the city had issued only 14 new food cart permits this year, despite a waiting list of over 10,000 applicants. There are only about 5,100 mobile food vending permits in circulation citywide, because of a cap imposed in the 1980s, but the City Council passed a law in 2021 that would nearly double that number over the next decade.
The Corona Plaza arrangement will allow the vendors to work legally even without those permits, provided they meet other safety and business requirements.
The scaled-down plan was the result of pushback from some residents and business owners who said the vendors were overcrowding the plaza and making it unsafe for pedestrians. The city received 78 complaints related to illegal vending in the area through October of this year, up from 17 complaints in the same period last year, according to the mayor’s office.
“Before, the plaza was out of control,” said Linda Hernández, 43, a Corona resident and the manager of Sabor Guatemalteco, a restaurant in the plaza. “If there are going to be just a few of them, that is going to be better for everybody in the neighborhood,” she said in Spanish.
The reaction among elected officials who had pushed for the vendors’ return was muted.
“I’m not screaming ‘victory lap,’” said Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, adding that the reduced number of spots would drive some vendors to work illegally elsewhere. “If you want to see a decrease in illegal activity, you have to formalize this work force.”
Raúl Vilchis contributed reporting.