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A Moveable Feast

Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program
R. Wayne Parsons
 by Thomas Holton.
Thomas Holton

For years many lower income neighborhoods in New York have not had adequate access to reasonably priced fresh fruits and vegetables. Based on the liberal premise that government should step in to fill the gap when the private sector fails to remedy a social or economic ill, the New York City Green Cart Program undertook to provide incentives for entrepreneurs to set up produce stands, creating 1,000 licenses for Green Cart owners in the kind of government initiative that libertarians, tea partiers and Republican presidential candidates love to hate!

The Aperture Foundation commissioned five photographers to document the program for a year, and a selection of over 100 resulting photographs are on view at the Museum of the City of New York. The most common approach in the exhibition is to explore the lives of both vendors and their customers; photographers Gabriele Stabile and Latoya Ruby Frazier do this effectively. One emerging fact is that these vendors don’t do business on Easy Street. There are hassles with cops over cart locations, the fear and sometimes reality of robbery and other crime, harassment from merchants in the area, disagreements with other vendors about where one can set up shop, not to mention long hours, the necessity to begin the day with a trip to the vegetable wholesalers in the South Bronx, and the difficulty of any small business operator trying to make it work.

Table Setting by Shen Wei. Source:
Shen Wei, "Table Setting"

While Thomas Holton’s essay examines two immigrant vendors, his most compelling images emphasize material objects. “Appetizers” is an arresting photo of a first course laid out on paper towels on top of a plastic-covered table in a cramped apartment. His picture of a plastic shopping bag held open to reveal the customer’s purchases is unusual and especially effective.

Will Steacy’s high-content, gritty photos of one area in which a vendor does business readily convey the feel of this Bronx neighborhood. He is especially good with found photos; a simple image of a plastic container of discarded blueberries on a curb succeeds as both an aesthetic and documentary artifact.

Shen Wei departs from the paradigm underlying this exhibition. His contributions are large, luscious (though visually simple) still lifes of produce bought at these Green Carts, but photographed in his studio. No doubt you have never seen so enticing and intriguing a photo of a single banana. There is also a good deal of wit in his work; we see a cut lemon and the knife used for the job in front of the side of a shipping container printed with instruction on how to cut open a mango.

In the early twentieth century there were more than 25,000 pushcarts in the city in 1906, according to the wall text. Enriching the exhibit is a small selection of vintage prints of pushcarts, with photos dating back to as early as 1895, along with additional images by such names as Jacob Riis and Berenice Abbott. When Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor in 1934, he sought to reduce the number of pushcarts, not, as one might suppose, for health reasons, but solely because he felt they damaged the reputation of the city. LaGuardia was successful with this, as with much else, as the number of licensed vendors declined from 15,000 in 1934 to just over 1,000 in 1945.

But lest the guardians of the political culture become overwrought, it should be noted that today’s Green Cart Program is not a give-away program; prospective vendors must buy their own carts and use their own money to keep it stocked. The most financial assistance they can hope for is help in securing a loan with which to purchase a cart. Vendors must be licensed and are permitted to do business only in certain neighborhoods and cannot sell produce that has been cut or prepared in any way.

This is a fascinating exhibition, one you surely will enjoy if you make your way to the Museum between now and July 10.

Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Ave.
UES         Map

212 534 1672

Tuesday, March 22 to
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Hours: Tues - Sun 10 to 5

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery