Hawkers: 47th Street’s Human Spam

A recent article in the New York Post got some excited that the city was finally ready to crack down on the hawkers (or “pullers”) that accost passersby on 47th Street, trying to get them to either buy or sell jewelry. But according to Michael Grumet, executive director of the 47th Street Business Improvement District, which has searched for answers to the issue, the police department is clamping down on aggressive hawkers that wander out in the street and stop traffic. The regular hawkers, as unpopular as they are, cannot be stopped.

Why? A BID study released last year says that while accosting motorists is illegal, accosting pedestrians is not:

Neighborhoods throughout Manhattan, including SoHo, downtown, and Times Square, have encountered similar issues concerning street advertising. Our research confirmed that at this time there is no legal precedent that would allow the City of New York to bar street advertisers from operating on 47th Street…. [A] legally operating business that is simply handing out flyers is protected under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In some limited instances—i.e. no hand billing within 100 feet of a polling place or no demonstrations within 25 feet of a medical facility—restrictions could be enforced such as speech activities which are adjacent to sensitive facilities. Other than that, leafleting on a city street is permitted. 

The study adds:

BID members have gone to great lengths to try and bar the street advertisers from 47th Street. In a public effort, businesses have appealed to a number of officials including federal and state representatives as well as the city’s police department. Together they offered suggestions such as privatizing the sidewalks (in which the BID would assume responsibility), creating a “no peddling zone,” and requiring street advertisers to obtain a permit. A few years back, they held a legislative breakfast attended by city officials and showed a video they had produced to illustrate what pedestrians and other visitors experience on the street as a result of these advertisers. To date, businesses report they have had no help from the city on this issue. 

Most industry members agree that hawkers can be annoying, and give a bad image to the street. I can’t think of any other block in New York City that has this problem the way the Diamond District has. And, as the price of gold has risen, their numbers have multiplied, as they now try to get visitors to sell their old jewelry. (Whether they actually entice customers is an open question; the BID study includes survey results that show an overwhelming majority of 47th Street visitors said they were not influenced by street advertisers. The fact that any customers were influenced just makes you shakes your head.)

As the 47th Street study notes, many landlords include “no hawking” clauses in their leases. But they are rarely enforced. I’ve long suspected that some property owners on 47th Street and the nearby blocks practice a form of “benign neglect” toward their buildings there; ignoring the street salesmen is no exception. Now that the practice has become so out-of-control that a few of these guys are blocking traffic and getting themselves arrested, one hopes that both landlords and the city government will wake up and take a little more action on this issue. 

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