Commerce and Community

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By Errol Louis

Increase the Peace in Crown Heights
One of Central Brooklyn’s treasures, the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, is trying to raise money to keep its Kingston Avenue storefront open. The organization has a $25,000 challenge grant from the Independence Community Foundation but must match that amount in donations from neighborhood residents in order to get the funds.
Since its founding in the 1990s, the Center has helped thousands of people resolve disputes without resorting to street violence or costly legal battles. The group also connects local residents with services they need, such as housing and job training.
Donations are tax-deductible; checks should be made out to the Fund for the City of New York and mailed to the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, 262 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11213.
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Learn a Trade
at Bronx Community College
The Continuing Education Program of Bronx Community College is offering courses in carpentry, plumbing, electrical repair, boiler maintenance and home inspections – those lucrative building trades that never go out of style. After a safety course and a brush-up on basic math like fractions, students learn everything from how to swing a hammer to proper ways to install wiring and build decks, doors, windows and ceilings.
Each course costs less than $400. To sign up, call (718) 289-5170 or visit Philosophy Hall, Room 14, on the campus of Bronx Community College of The City University of New York at West 181st Street & University Avenue. E-mail inquiries to cps@bcc.cuny.edu.
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Vendor Rules Need An Update
Members of the City Council, who recently voted themselves a 25% pay hike, need to cure the sorry mess of confusion and inaction surrounding who can and can’t sell goods and services on our streets.
I recently met a man named Zhong Hu, who is fighting a heroic battle for survival against a city government that treats street vendors like dirt. Hu offers watch-repair services on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park for that area’s largely Asian community. There are no storefronts nearby that sell the service.
Although he lives only four blocks away from his vending spot near 57th St., it takes Hu 30 minutes to wheel a tiny cart there. He walks slowly, using a cane, relying on help from his wife and interpreter, Sandy Yu, who also is disabled – she was badly burned in a fire that left her with scarred skin and mangled fingers.
Hu, who moved here from Canton, China, with his wife and two young children in 2003, fixes watches for residents of Sunset Park’s large and growing Asian population who don’t want to make the long trek to Chinatown in Manhattan. He replaces dead batteries, tinkers with mechanical watches, changes watchbands. Hu works about 10 hours a day and makes $50.
In a city with its priorities straight, Hu would apply for a general vendor’s license, the kind nonfood sellers use, and be free to ply his trade.
But this is New York – where, in an act of colossal and unforgivable stupidity, the number of general vendor licenses has remained frozen at 853, the number in existence on Sept. 1, 1979.
That arbitrary number is much too small. Thousands of would-be vendors have been on a waiting list since 1992, according to Sean Basinski, who runs the Street Vendor Project of the nonprofit Urban Justice Center.
More than 14 years later, only half the applicants on the list have received licenses, meaning people like Hu have no chance of getting legal approval to do business. “We are just really poor people. This is really important for us,” says Yu, her eyes welling with tears. “We can’t find jobs because we have disabilities.”
Hu has been given tickets for sitting hunched over his little table on Eighth Ave. without a license, an offense that can draw fines up to $1,000. Hu accepted it as the cost of doing business.
But cops recently arrested him for being on the sidewalk.
“They pushed my husband on the ground and then lifted him up and threw him in the car. My heart was broken,” says Yu, who panicked until he was released.
“I’m confused. Is my husband doing a crime to work?”
No, Ms. Yu, your husband is not the problem. The people doing a crime are the politicians and bureaucrats who have been dithering for years with scant signs of progress.
Start with the City Council, which voted to pay members $112,500 a year in taxpayer funds for what is officially classified as part-time work.
They found time to pay themselves, but the council’s Consumer Affairs Committee last held hearings on lifting the cap on general vendor licenses in the middle of 2005 and took no action.
Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-Queens), who heads the committee, says he plans to resume hearings on the subject by February. That would be a good start.
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A Word to the Wise
The city has installed one of those automated redlight cameras – the kind that snares unsuspecting drivers – at the corner of Atlantic and Nostrand Avenues. Walking past there the other night, the flashbulb was going off like a disco ball. Take your time and save some money.