A Tale of Two Cities: Why Street Vendors Matter for City Economy

By John_Gong

10:36:00, Jun. 10, 2020

Beneath the argument in support of the street vendor,there lies a more fundamental question about people’s utility regarding better quality of life and what kind of city we aspire for a better future.

Editor's note: Dr. John Gong is a professor at the University of International Business and Economics and a research fellow at the Academy of China Open Economy Studies at UIBE, and Now he is also a columnist for TMTPost.

In one aspect that is about street vendor stands, one city in China bears a striking resemblance to the City of New York – at least in the eyes of Premier Li, who has been championing the idea during the Two Sessions as a means of jumpstarting the economy in terms of creating more jobs and livelihoods for tens of millions of people who are struggling right now in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city of Chengdu is a prime example of success in this regard, as the largest western city in China has set up 36 thousand street vendor stands responsible for creating 100 thousand new jobs. 

The street vendor economy is kind of a tangential part of the mainstream city economy with its less-than-ideal facade and fair share of problems. Street vendors are usually night hawkers, catering to occasional night-eating crowds or people casually trying to strike a hard bargain. Quality of food and quality of goodies can’t be compared to their more formal counterparts in stores during the day. They temporarily occupy sidewalks and roads, perhaps inconveniencing pedestrians and traffic to some extent. They may also cause some sanitary problems if not closely monitored and managed well by regulators. They typically pay less or no taxes at all, affording them a slight cost advantage. These are all on the downside of things. 

But the up side is that its very existence means there is indeed demand and supply from the society. Viewed from we economists’ perspective, where is demand and supply there got be gain from trade and consequently enhancement of social welfare. By allowing street vendors to make a living, more jobs and GDP are thus created. 

But beneath this simplistic laissez-faire economics argument in support of the street vendor phenomenon, there lies a more fundamental question about people’s utility regarding better quality of life and what kind of city we aspire for a better future.

In that regard, experiences in the U.S. could provide some insight as to the true meaning of a great city. 

On the one hand, there are those well-planned, ultra-clean and stunningly beautiful small cities in Southern California. Everything about development in those places is done based on city ordinance and community covenant. It is truly a great pleasure to walk a dog with the family there, or just stroll down the street by yourself even during rainy days, or bathe in the sun at a coffee shop nearby for hours with a newspaper in hand. Such is the typical American life style that I miss sometimes.  

But I also miss the many boisterous nights when I drove into New York City in my days working in Morristown, New Jersey. Being one the largest cities in Northern Jersey, Morristown fits my description above if one can still call it a city.

I was working for a research lab in Morristown in the mid and late 1990s, while my wife was working as a tax accountant for Pricewaterhouse in Midtown Manhattan. During the tax filing season, she usually needed to work overtime late into the night. The company was gracious enough to allow for vouchering a taxi ride back home or simply a 70 buck reimbursement if driving by ourselves. As a young couple just starting out, we certainly took the latter option. We used to spend many of those happy 70-buck summer nights in the city. We dined out or did some bargain hunting after work, many times at street vendor stands, before heading back to New Jersey. 

In a way New York City is no comparison to those cleaner tidier better-planned cities in Southern California, Northern Jersey or North Virginia. But the City has its perpetual appeal in its diversity, its boisterousness, its never-sleeping nature and all of those probably unorthodox things that jointly make the city like nothing else in the world. And that certainly includes its fair share of street vendor stands. 

You can find yourself in another Southern California city without knowing the city name. But when you are in New York City, you know you are in New York City. 

Like the United States, we pride ourselves for diversity here in China. While more and more cities across the land are becoming like those in Southern California in terms of their cleanness and tidiness, we also need places like the Big Apple where a bit of uncleanness and untidiness are assets as opposed to liabilities.

Street vendor stands dotting the night adds vigor, liveliness and, yes, beauty to a preponderance of glitzy but lifeless iron-and-glass skyscrapers in our city life. Give the night hawkers some space, and they will shine under the neolight. 



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