Pushcart History
presented by Uncle Shlomo

Afternoon in a Pushcart Peddlers' Colony
An excerpt from American Life Histories, 1936-1940.

It was snowing and, shortly after noontime, the snow changed to sleet and beat a tattoo against the rocks and board shacks that had been carelessly thrown together on the west bank of the Harlem. It was windy too and the cold blasts that came in from the river sent the men shivering for cover behind their shacks where some of them had built huge bonfires to-ward off the icy chills that swept down from the hills above.

Some of them, unable to stand it any longer, went below into the crudely furnished cabins that were located in the holds of some old abandoned barges that lay half in, half out of the water. But the men did not seem to mind. Even the rotting barges afforded them some kind of shelter. It was certainly better than nothing, not to mention the fact that it was their home; address, the foot of 133rd Street at Park Avenue on the west bank of the Harlem River; depression residence of a little band of part-time pushcart peddlers whose cooperative colony is one of the most unique in the history of New York City.

These men earn their living by cruising the streets long before daylight, collecting old automobile parts, pasteboard, paper, rags, rubber, magazines, brass, iron, steal, old clothes or anything they can find that is saleable as junk. They wheel their little pushcarts around exploring cellars, garbage cans and refuse heaps. When they have a load, they turn their footsteps in the direction of the American Junk Dealers, Inc., whose site of wholesale and retail operations is located directly opposite the pushcart colony at 134th Street and Park Avenue. Of the fifty odd colonists, many are ex-carpenters, painters, brick-masons, auto-mechanics, upholsterers, plumbers and even an artist or two.

Most of the things the men collect they sell, but once in awhile they run across something useful to themselves, like auto parts, pieces of wire, or any electrical equipment, especially in view of the fact that there are two or three electrical engineers in the group. ...

Jane and her daughter search for a real pushcart in Manhattan
Not long after Paul started thinking of going into the pushcart vendor business, I went to Manhattan to visit my daughter and asked: "Please find a real pushcart I can look at and photograph."

I didn't think it would be that hard. I read The Pushcart War to my kids when they were little, and figured that since there used to be 1,000s of pushcarts, surely there should be hundreds left.

Not so. My daughter Hannah described her search:

I like this project. Pushcarts are in my genes. So I thought tracking one down would be easy...
  • Museum of the City of New York: "Nope, no pushcarts - try the Tenement Museum."

  • Tenement Museum: "We have a replica in our gift shop, we keep books on it, but no, we don't have any originals."

  • New York Historical Society: "No, we don't have one. They're ... yeah, they're kind of big to keep around, you know?"

  • Ellis Island Museum: "Nope."
Oh my goodness! In our zeal for progress, could it really be? Did we manage to throw out all the pushcarts? I asked at jspot.org and Kate Stober of the Tenement Museum responded:
  • Re the pushcarts: the Lower East Side Business Improvement District has at least one or two. You should also talk to Jeffrey the Butcher in the Essex Street Market - he has a crazy story about learning to sell stuff from the last pushcart vendor on the Lower East Side.

I called the Lower East Side Business Improvement District.

  • "We've got a pushcart," they said. "We don't use it much, but we bring it out for special events."

    "Where is it now?" I asked. "Is it in storage?"

    "Oh no," they said. "It would take up way too much space in storage. It's in a parking lot on Broome Street."

So my daughter and I walked over to the parking lot, and there it was. Just a wooden pushcart. They were using it to tote garbage cans. We took pictures, to the disbelief of the parking attendant.

In which Jane and Hannah meet the "Last Pushcart Vendor in New York"
and he explains why there are no more pushcarts, at all, in New York City

After our visit to the last pushcart, which is now parked beside a porta-potty and is used to shuffle garbage cans around, we went to the Essex street market to meet Jeffrey the butcher, who bills himself as the last pushcart vendor still standing.

Jeffrey has a very high-tech website. He is a really cheerful guy who appears to adore his work, is very proud to be a fourth-generation butcher, and was butterflying chicken breasts by the score when we showed up.

He explained that when he was a tot, his grandfather would hoist him up onto the back of the pushcart and give him a bag of cherries to eat, and little Jeffrey would hawk meat for his grandfather.

So naturally I asked, "well, where ARE all the pushcarts?" and he tossed me a butcher's apron and said, "Come on back here, I'll tell you."

In 1936 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decided pushcarts made the city look bad. Who knew how old that produce was? Were the merchants short-weighting? Haggling was unseemly. And were they paying their taxes?

In addition, the merchants of Hester, Essex, Delancy, and Mulberry Streets (and all the other streets with lines of elbow-to-elbow pushcarts just parallel to the sidewalks) were indignant that pushcart vendors, who did not pay rent beyond a 25-cents-per-day rental fee (they went every morning to the pushcart stables to sign out a pushcart) could compete with them so flagrantly.

La Guardia took a giant pot of federal money and built a ring of indoor markets around the boroughs. He gave every pushcart vendor a "bin number" and a permit at a particular market. Jeffrey's family, obviously, got their bin number at the Essex Street Market, where he still operates.

He says each guy was given two weeks to sell out whatever stock he had and after that, he could only sell whatever he had a permit for. AND: "As each pushcart guy wheeled up to the market, his pushcart was taken away. La Guardia had them all destroyed."

The irony was: within a year the storekeepers realized they'd made a terrible mistake, their sales were down 60%. It turns out that virtually all the people coming to buy from the pushcart vendors were former Lower East Siders, come back from their more affluent current homes to savor a nostalgic visit to the old home. They LIKED to haggle. They LIKED the noise and the tumult and the mishmosh of goods for sale.

When the pushcarts were gone and the street was nice and sterile, there was no draw and the tourists stayed home.

Of course this is the eternal puzzle of city life. The folks in charge want everything to be clean, predictable, well-regulated. That makes for a boring city and drives the tourists away.

Leonard Michaels remembers...

...a comparable miracle was the chicken-flicker down the block, a boisterous man who yelled at customers in vulgar funny Yiddish. This man's son was a star at MIT. In regard to such miracles, an expression I often heard was "He is up from pushcarts." It means he went from the Yiddish immigrant poverty to money ...

The Pushcarts of Beirut (Saudi Aramco World)

Years ago pushcarts were common and colorful fragments in the noisy mosaic of American city life. On New York's immigrant-jammed, lower East Side, at Boston's bustling, historic Faneuil Hall, up on Federal Hill in Providence, along Roosevelt Road in Chicago, and in the busy market places of San Francisco, brass-lunged street vendors pushed and jostled their way into the economic life of America.

Most of them have disappeared by now, but in the countries that fringe the Mediterranean, the countries from which so many of the American street vendors emigrated, the tradition of the pushcart lives on. In such cities as Naples, Dubrovnik, Athens and Istanbul, thousands of pushcarts still take to the streets at dawn laden with an unimaginable variety of products that their indefatigable owners confidently expect to sell before the day is out.

In Beirut, especially, the ubiquitous pushcarts, laden with gravitationally-impossible piles of goods, have long been a source of delight—and service—to tourists. They have also been a not unimportant arm of the city's merchandising system.

Pushcarts sell an extraordinary variety of goods: bright wooden stools with woven straw seats, ice cream, water pipes, potted-plants, plastic kitchen utensils, plumbing equipment, hammers and saws, used and new dresses, men's suits, shoes, toys and books—to name just a few.

Some pushcarts offer goods impossible to find elsewhere. Pushcarts also collect rubbish, deliver refrigerators and dispense hot and cold drinks. In the spring they stock strawberries, in the fall, hot chestnuts. When the season is right they're loaded with dates, sweet corn, almonds and apricots.

Some, equipped with a dishpan and disinfectant-soapsuds to wash glasses, sell fresh orange juice. Others, equipped with hissing Coleman lanterns, offer flounder caught minutes before in the dark seas off a nearby beach.

All cheerfully scream their prices to penthouse apartments, load up baskets lowered to them on a rope and send their goods skyward with an indifferent flourish and a bellowed reminder not to forget the money.