On March 28, Atlanta vendor Sameerah Yamini arrived at the Five Points MARTA station to set up shop and found Atlanta Police waiting to arrest her if she proceeded.
The longtime vendor — she's been selling items at the location since 1997 — had just spent $500 on Easter baskets that she planned to start selling that morning.
"I was forced to put my Easter baskets in storage and I lost my entire $500," she said, gripping a walking stick. Blind since age 11, she's been self-sufficient — at least until now. "It's my only means of survival, and now I have nothing."
Yamini was one of several vendors who were pushed along two weeks ago when Mayor Kasim Reed's office decided to do some serious street sweeping around Five Points, Woodruff Park and Turner Field before the Final Four. Since getting kicked to the curb, the vendors, some of whom have been doing business in the areas for more than 20 years, have taken to the streets armed with fliers and picket signs to protest.
"We'd like the assault to be stopped on all street vendors," Atlanta Vendor Association President Larry Miller said on Saturday. "How would you feel if somebody came to your job tomorrow and told you that you couldn't work anymore? It's just not right."
Atlanta's certainly committed its share of sins in the name of progress and prosperity. Enforced just before the Final Four, this move had shades of Fulton County buying one-way bus tickets to ship away the homeless in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. The major difference is that vendors aren't seeking welfare, they just want to work.
As insignificant as their numbers seemed during the city's biggest sports event of the year, this could be another pivotal moment for Atlanta — one in which we get to decide yet again what type of attitude we want to project to the world: Too busy to hate? Or too busy to care?
The city claims vendors were violating a city ordinance, but there has been no street-vending ordinance on the books since a Fulton County judge last December tore up a 2009 city contract to outsource vending to a Chicago company called General Growth Properties.
The deal required vendors, who used to pay $250 a year for their public property vending license, to lease kiosks from GGP for as much as $1,450 a month. That was before Institute for Justice, an advocacy group representing vendors Miller and Stanley Hambrick, won the lawsuit on behalf of all licensed public vendors in December.
The Atlanta City Council was supposed to create a new vending ordinance in its place. But that never happened, so the mayor's office decided to outlaw street vending altogether, claiming the ruling effectively voided the city's legal means of regulating the industry. It was a convenient legal interpretation at best, especially one week before the Final Four.
I can empathize with the position the mayor's in. He needs to look like he's doing things to make the city more attractive for economic investment. What we can't afford to do is outsource common sense and civic responsibility.
Instead of addressing any legitimate aesthetic concerns presented by vendor display setups, the city pushed out some of Atlanta's most vulnerable, hard-working citizens for the sake of tourists and outside corporate interests.
"If the problem at Five Points is that the stands don't look a certain way, then the city of Atlanta should pass a law laying forth minimum standards for the stands," says Institute for Justice attorney Robert Frommer. "What you don't do is throw the baby out with the bathwater."
You also don't add to Georgia's unemployment rate by throwing out a bunch of self-sufficient entrepreneurs — unless you'd prefer to have the city provide for them.
According to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, Atlanta stands to reap $70 million in economic impact from the Final Four. "Just think if we got 1 percent of 1 percent of that," says Miller. He wants the mayor's office to hold a public forum on the future of vending. The mayor's office says it intends to look at how other cities handle public vending and "what, if any such program or ordinance" might work in Atlanta.
Reed and his advisors know there won't be much of an outcry over the loss of street vendors, except from street vendors themselves. That's because most proponents of downtown revitalization view them as part of the problem with Woodruff Park and the Five Points MARTA station.
But that's not necessarily the case. In Atlanta's quest for international clout, we've often overlooked our greatest assets while rushing to replicate what other cities offer. Just as we've been guilty of knocking down buildings with no regard for their architectural value and local legacy, we're now kicking out people with no respect for the street culture and local heritage to which they contribute.
There's a way to spruce up downtown without suburbanizing it. But it'll take more creative means and collaborative effort between the city and all of its entrepreneurs to come up with the right solution.
Additional reporting by Joeff Davis.
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