Making Street Fairs More Than 'Socks and Sausages'

Neighborhood street fairs -- in too many cases, it has come to sound like an oxymoron.

Cookie-cutter, corporate events with block after block of the same vendors, many street fairs today are of the "socks and sausages" variety and fail to bear any reflection of the communities where they take place.

And they cost the City a reported $2.4 million a year, even after the fees City Hall collects.

With the dynamic neighborhoods we have -- and the hard times we face -- it shouldn't be this way. By taking a page from the street fairs that work, we can makeover these events into experiences worth supporting, which aid local business and add life to our streets.

The key is participation by local merchants.

Today, where mom-and-pop stores and new entrepreneurs set up shop on the sidewalk alongside the ubiquitous crepe stands and pashmina tables, street fairs become vibrant, highly anticipated community events.

The Bedford-Barrow-Commerce Block Association fair in the West Village attracts a wide variety of artworks and local eateries -- and with them, large crowds. In Brooklyn, the beloved Atlantic Antic, organized by the Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation, has all the usual street fair staples, yet 60 percent of the vendors are local, neighborhood retailers.

Unfortunately, these fairs are the exception. According to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, 20 vendors hold 46 percent of all street fair food permits -- and nine of those 20 are based outside New York City entirely.

Fair organizers should be required to pass a basic threshold of local business participation in order to go forward with the event. I have proposed that bare minimum be 20 percent of the retail stores and eateries located on the footprint of the street fair.

There is proof that this level of support can be easily met: In Park Slope, store owners are clamoring for the Fifth Avenue BID to extend the length of its street fair so that they, too, can sell their wares right outside their front doors.

We could explore limited exceptions in areas where this threshold may be impractical and the local community board gives its support, but it is simply no longer feasible to support street fairs that are seen as an imposition on local business and residents.

As an additional incentive for organizers to attract neighborhood vendors, I also proposed creating a sliding scale that would reward greater participation of local businesses by lowering the fees paid by sponsors to the City.

It is unlikely to be a burden on the non-profit groups that sponsor street fairs to recruit local merchants -- many of them already hire production companies to line up the vendors. And any loss of revenue to the City is likely to be offset by a reduction in the total number of fairs due to some not meeting the 20 percent participation minimum.

There is still more we can do. I am drafting legislation to require the Department of Small Business Services to provide information on its website about street fairs, to aid merchants who might want to participate. We should even explore placing vendors' stands in the middle of the avenue rather than on the sides where they block storefronts.

New Yorkers are desperate to enjoy the street fair experience -- 2 million people visit them today, as bland as most of them are. When we return street fairs to their roots, as events that celebrate their vibrant communities, we can all get something worth paying for.