Chelsea street fair struggles to stay afloat


The London Terrace Street Fair, known as the "best little street fair with no tube socks, massages or 20,000 sausages,"  struggles to stay afloat.

Local residents flock to The London Terrace in Chelsea for what is known as the “best little street fair.”  Photo by Kathryn Thomson.

Members of the London Terrace Tenants’ Association hosted the apartment complex’s 23rd annual street fair on Sept. 26 along 24th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues in Chelsea. Referred to as “the best little street fair” on neighborhood posters, the fair has survived more than a decade of restrictions and rule changes to the city’s street fair guidelines.

In response to 9/11, the Mayor’s office, under Rudy Giuliani’s leadership, implemented a ban on the addition of any new street fairs. Years later, Michael Bloomberg enacted additional restrictions to curb what he considered too many similar street fairs.  Such changes, including mandatory city fees and limited hours of operation, have added hardships to fairs like the London Terrace event, making it vulnerable to closure.

“The burden on us is considerable and we have almost had to shut down,” said Andy Humm, President of the London Terrace Tenants’ Association. “We only make a few thousand dollars on this and the city just keeps making it harder and harder.”

Although 150 vendors purchased booth space at the fair for $110 (or $70 if the vendor was a member of the London Terrace Tenants’ Association,) Humm estimates that the net profit of this year’s event was approximately $4,000 after fees to the city were subtracted.

The London Terrace fair, which is comprised mostly of building tenants selling their personal belongings and artisanal goods, initially began in the late ‘80s as a way to bring neighbors together in a flea market-like setting. Today, commercial vendors are still few and far between at the fair with a small handful of local restaurants and bakeries selling their goods.

Residents of the pre-war building, which includes 1,400 apartments and was once the largest apartment building in the world, feel the citywide restrictions have hurt them, as the regulations do not differentiate between “neighborly” gatherings and the larger, commercial street fairs which dominate many avenues.

“I’m not a fan of most street fairs and ours is very different. I think neighborhood events should be treated differently and not be subject to the same rules,” said Humm. “We were founded by volunteers in our building. We’re not some traveling circus.”

When street fairs first began to appear in the 1970s as a response to the economic crisis, their purpose was similar to the one Humm still describes: a way to unify neighbors and raise the spirit of local communities. It was in the 1980s and ‘90s however, that they suddenly became profitable and soon more homogenous. As a result, all street fairs must now pay 20 percent of their gross income to the city, a rule implemented by Mayor Bloomberg to help cover the sanitation and safety measures.

Treasurer of the London Terrace Tenants’ Association, George Boras, calls this rule criminal. “It’s like going to Lord and Taylor and saying ‘pay us 25 percent,’ it’s just mafia-esque.”

There are less-disputed street fair rules, which were included within Mayor Bloomberg’s changes. Among them is a mandatory sponsorship of a local nonprofit, which is aimed at making street fairs more about the communities they serve, rather than a way for the groups to churn a large profit. The London Terrace Street Fair benefits New Alternatives, a Chelsea-based charity for LGBT homeless youth.

Chelsea resident Nancy Collins thinks street fairs are too big of a burden. “I can’t take those things; they’re too many of them and they always interrupt traffic,” she said.

In the early months of 2015, speculations circulated that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office might loosen up city street fair restrictions. Spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh issued a statement in late January saying, “we are reviewing our street activity permitting process and looking into options for revising the moratorium.” She added that because any policy changes from de Blasio’s administration would need to undergo the standard administrative process, potential changes would not be realized until spring 2016 at the earliest.

As it now stands, pre-existing street fairs must reapply each year for their fair permits. The initial application is submitted to the city’s office and if approval is granted, individual community boards within the respective areas must also approve the permits. According to the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City think-tank, there are approximately 370 annual street fairs throughout Manhattan that take place from May through November, primarily on weekends.

Jan Jenicek, a longtime Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village resident, treks crosstown for the London Terrace Street Fair each year in search of bargains and “unusual odds and ends.” She says that Stuyvesant Town, a series of apartment complexes along First Avenue from 14th to 23rd Streets, used to have a flea market-like street fair similar to the London Terrace’s.

“One year they got rid of it and when we wanted to bring the street fair back the next year, we couldn’t because by then we weren’t grandfathered in with the new rules,” said Jenicek.

Though any potential restriction reversals by Mayor de Blasio could lead to additional street fairs to compete with, members of the London Terrace Tenants Association say “the more the merrier,” so long as they’re not commercial ones with “tube socks, massages and 20,000 sausages,” says Boras.

“New changes under de Blasio wouldn’t hurt us, because local, neighborhood street fairs are all so different. It’s those big ones where it’s all the same vendors,” said London Terrace resident Inge Ivchenko.

Ivchenko is additionally involved with her local Community Board 4, where she serves on the business licenses and permits committee along with the quality of life committee. Frustrated with burdens placed on community events like the London Terrace’s fair, Ivchenko hopes to address street fair bureaucracy encumbrances.

Chelsea resident Alan Sklar was grateful to have the London Terrace’s fair as a way of selling leftover inventory from his video store, Alan’s Alley Video, which recently went out of business around the corner. “I know everyone here and most of these people have become my close friends over the years,” said Sklar, as he paused to give street fair visitors hugs and final video suggestions. “In some ways, this is like Alan’s Alley Video Farewell Tour.”