BY DEAN MOSES
East 14th Street in the East Village has become a haven for homelessness and drug use as unlicensed vendors fill the sidewalk peddling trash and broken items, according to local merchants and residents.
Before the pandemic, Immaculate Conception Church, located at the corner of First Avenue and East 14th Street, continuously held their weekend flea market in their parking lot. This house of worship would allow parishioners to sell clothing, jewelry, and even electronics, such as record players and video games.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 the church was forced to shut down the community event. In the wake of this closure, a homeless community moved onto the block — spreading out blankets and cardboard boxes on which they peddled everything from pirate DVDs to used food items, sometimes even going so far as to sell open seasoning containers and tangled extension cords.
Tattered shirts and jackets are hung on the closed shutters of businesses while free newspaper dispensers have been turned on their sides and used as seats. Worst of all, the remnants of unsellable wears like underwear are left strewn in the roadway.
What began as a few vendors piggybacking off a neighborhood staple in order to make a quick buck, has now transformed into a block-wide market, overflowing with litter and all out debauchery. Since these makeshift merchants overtook the sidewalk, they have terrorized the neighborhood, especially local business owners.
Many residents that spoke to amNewYork Metro feel that the area could swiftly become a COVID-19 hotspot due to the ever-growing cluster of maskless individuals rooting themselves along the sidewalk.
“They are selling garbage; they are trying to feed off the real flea market,” said one local store owner, who asked to be identified as Kim, in an interview with amNewYork Metro. “One guy was puking in the street; another guy was masturbating in front of my store. It happens every weekend! I have seen drug use, people sleeping, fighting… you name it!
Kim further said that police have been regularly called on weekends to address the problems, but “they come and they do absolutely nothing.”
Jimmy Jiang, owner Hawa Smoothies and Bubble Tea juice bar, also feels helpless about the whole situation. He has now been forced to close his shop on weekends since customers say it’s just too dangerous for shoppers.
“We tried to call 911, the cops say they are not going to do anything,” Jiang said. After continuously reaching out to the NYPD for help, he asked the officers why they can’t do anything to stop these peddlers. “The mayor told officers they cannot touch vendors and can’t remove the homeless.”
This bootleg flea market goes on all weeklong, but on weekends, it hits its peak, barely allowing room for foot traffic. Still, it is not much better during the few times these dealers are not on the street.
“Since they are not real business vendors, they leave all of their garbage because they can’t carry it. We get a ticket for the trash,” Jiang said.
When Jiang attempted to confront the unlicensed vendors setting up on damp, torn-up chunks of cardboard in front of his juice bar, he recalled, a peddler punched him. Jiang sought aid from the NYPD, identifying his assailant who had fled to the L train station on Avenue A, but instead of following him, he says officers got in their patrol car and drove in the opposite direction.
After reaching out for comment, Council Member Carlina Rivera’s office gave amNewYork Metro a statement, saying that she is aware of the issue at hand.
“We’ve been working with local businesses, constituents, other elected officials, and City agencies regarding the uptick in individuals on 14th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A who are selling miscellaneous items outside of the Church of Immaculate Conception Flea Market. Councilwoman Rivera certainly understands the serious health risks regarding the lack of social distancing posed by increased numbers of individuals on any city street, which is compounded by those who also reside in the area and may be experiencing homelessness without access to adequate resources,” said Jeremy Unger, spokesperson for Councilwoman Carlina Rivera.
In response to the issue, Rivera’s office says they have worked with church officials to resume their regular flea market within the property and off the sidewalk to regain some semblance of normalcy to the area while creating a controlled environment.
Unger also stated that the Councilwoman urged the church to consider creating clear identification for those registered to be a part of their flea market.
“Our office, in coordination with Council Member Keith Powers’ office, has also held meetings about this issue with City agencies and affected stakeholders in the last couple weeks, where Councilwoman Rivera urged the NYPD to respond quickly and humanely to any reports of violence or criminal activity in the area while also calling on DCA to sort out any issues regarding questions of agency enforcement for vendor activity,” said Unger.
Even employees at local stores such as Trader Joe’s and Target are fearful of the area.
Steven Rivera, a longtime Lower East Side resident and Target employee (located on 14th Street and Avenue A), is shocked at how dangerous the neighborhood has become.
“Some people get away from it by entering into Target because we have a security guard and police officer. These drug addicts come in and steal packs of underwear and socks and then sell them on the street,” Rivera said.
The neighborhood, also known as Alphabet City, houses countless residents in luxury apartments known as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Incredibly the complex appears to be inadvertently exacerbating the problem, according to one resident, by hosting a free food pantry just across street from where the peddlers have taken up shop.
“I live and work around here. They go across the street, bring boxes of food then come back and sell the food from the pantry here, it is a complete yard sale of food and other people’s trash. It is all weeklong, it is just feeding the homelessness and drug addiction,” said Luke, a local resident.
With many of the businesses closed during lockdown and ongoing L train construction preventing heavy pedestrian passage, the problem slipped by largely unnoticed.
Now that the storefronts and the church’s flea market have reopened and the L Train Avenue A platform entrance is complete, the situation is proving to be yet another hurdle for NYC’s already struggling restaurants and retailers to overcome.
amNewYork Metro reached out to the NYPD for comment and is awaiting a response.