We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
John Dizon understands the importance of investment in building a business. When the 68-year-old immigrant first landed in the U.S. from the Philippines, he worked long nights as a janitor, hoping one to day to work for himself. After dutifully tucking away his savings for a few years, Dizon in 1985 plowed it all into a used hot dog cart.
Dizon staked out a spot at F and 6th Streets NW. It was a risky investment. The corner is right in the heart of Washington’s old retail district, which at the time was starting to gasp for breath. But for 12 years, Dizon’s callused hands have served up hot dogs, half smokes, and soda to hungry downtowners and a growing clientele of regulars.
“I spent all my health there,” he says, blaming arthritis for his slow gait. In a good week, Dizon reports, he has pulled in as much as $350 in profits from his stand. “Sometimes I made a pretty good living,” he says, “and sometimes I [didn’t].”
Dizon should have hit the jackpot when the new MCI Center, located only one block away from his cart, opened its doors at the beginning of the month. But instead he can hardly make ends meet. The city kicked him and his fellow vendors off the corners around the arena on Nov. 28.
“[W]hen they built this MCI Center, I hoped to make a little more money,” Dizon explains. “But no. They close me.” Since then, Dizon has looked for a new spot in the neighborhood, but all the other corners are already taken.
Back when the arena was just a gleam in the District’s eye, Abe Pollin and his boosters in the D.C. government billed the downtown sports arena as an economic flood that would lift all boats. And while D.C. may not be a hotbed of entrepreneurial talent, vending carts are one thing locals are very good at. A steady flow of customers seemed to be the one sure-fire economic upside to the arena, so Dizon and his fellow pushcart vendors dutifully paid $25 a year into a special “arena tax fund.”
The tax fund was meant to defray at least part of the $58-million investment the city put into the project. Vendors like Dizon hoped that their contributions would be paid back in spades when hordes of fans came streaming into the arena for 200-plus yearly events. Frantically racing from their jobs to the arena, the fans would no doubt stop at the hot dog stand for a quick fix before game time.
“The grounds for the tax is that it’s going to be to everyone’s benefit to support Abe Pollin’s profit-making venture,” says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer advising displaced vendors like Dizon on a pro bono basis. But instead of harvesting the crop they helped plant, vendors like Dizon got kicked off the land entirely. With a big push from MCI, the city removed all vending spots within a one-block radius of the sports center. The rationale for the exclusion zone was that the vendors posed a public safety hazard to fans entering and exiting the arena.
“Our first concern was the safety of those large numbers of people arriving before and after events. We were concerned that the sidewalks just were not large enough for both fans and vendors,” says Mary Ann Niles, a project coordinator for the MCI Center.
City officials insist that they approved the measure only after consulting with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), reports Rodney Palmer, a close aide to Mayor Marion Barry and head of the mayor’s task force on vending. “What we did was based on an analysis of issues by the MPD,” says Palmer. “Their justification was based on traffic flow studies.”
But the vendors believe that the only thing being protected is economic exclusivity. “The public safety issue is a pretext. It’s a falsehood,” says Carl Messineo, Verheyden-Hilliard’s partner in a law practice specializing in consumer rights law. “The arena simply wants to carve out a zone where they can charge $10 for a hot dog and a Coke. They want a monopoly, and we object to that on many grounds.”
Verheyden-Hilliard thinks the city is looking after the economic interests of the wrong group of people. “The people they want to shove out are the backbone of the city,” says Verheyden-Hilliard. “Many of these people are immigrants, and vending is one of the only low-investment entrees into the business world.”
Jerrome Gray, who commanded MPD’s vending enforcement unit from 1985 until his retirement in 1994, agrees that the city and MCI went overboard in protecting the public from sidewalk gridlock. “All they had to do was maybe move vendors back from the area right in front of the main entrance,” Gray says. “Existing regulations would have done it.”
Palmer tried to console vendors by telling them that MCI’s original request would have created a ban encompassing four blocks in all directions from the center. That ban would have removed vendors from much of the eastern portion of the downtown business district. But Gray believes that even the scaled-back ban is a scam, noting that it applies to a stretch of H Street north of the arena. “That block isn’t even close,” says Gray. “There’s no way [vendors] up there could impede the flow of people to the arena.”
Lee Aikin, a merchandise vendor who served on the mayoral vending task force, points out that “on the Fourth of July, up to a million people visit the Mall, and far more people crowd those Metro entrances than the 10,000 they’re talking about at the arena.”
Indeed, scarce sidewalk space is hardly a perennial complaint of tourists who ply the vendor-lined streets by the Mall. “Washington is a city of large crowds, from the Fourth to all of our big political demonstrations,” notes Verheyden-Hilliard. “That’s just part of life in this city.”
Vendor supporters lump the MCI ban with an emerging attempt by big business to rewrite municipal regulations in their favor. According to vendor activist Brenda Sayles, established businesses have wanted to stomp out vendors for a long time. “This is just a first bite,” she says. “Whenever there is an immediate opportunity, like with the center, they’ll phase it in in bits and pieces.”
Messineo points to the recent report from the Business Regulatory Reform Commission, a group charged with formulating reforms of District business regulations. The report, according to Messineo, reflects the interests of “everybody who is in big business, and nobody who is affected.” The report recommends banning vendors from within 50 feet of any store or restaurant offering similar waresprecisely, as it happens, what the MCI Center ban achieves.
And At-Large D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil, who has just launched a mayoral bid as the pro-business candidate, has introduced a bill based largely on the report that would hand power over street vending (including the right to ban it outright) to the new Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
BIDs are private organizations that threaten to usurp the powers of municipal governmentlike regulating vendors. Currently, the only approved BID in the District is the Downtown BIDwhich happens to include the MCI Center. (BIDs covering the K Street downtown area, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown are expected to come online in 1998.)
“It’s fascistic,” says Bill Schulz, who attended a George Washington University basketball game at MCI last week. “I mean, even the most sanitized places in sports have vendors. Camden Yards is about as corporate as you can get, and you can buy stuff there.”
“It’s eerie, more than anything,” he adds. “No one’s selling anything anywhere.”CP