As a teenager in the 90s, I couldn’t wait to leave school to go to work at Turner Field, and stop to see, Donnie, a street vendor that I grew to become familiar with because of my frequent purchases of: honey buns, orange juice and Granny Smith Apples. But nowadays Peachtree is disserted by jobless vendors wandering the downtown streets aimlessly. As far as Donnie, he is now homeless, and I now go downtown every so often to find him and buy him something to eat.
During the year of 2008, the city of Atlanta stopped street vending on city owned property and negotiated an exclusive 20 year management agreement for street vending to a private company by the name of, “General Growth Properties (GGP).” For decades, the cost of vending on downtown Atlanta property didn’t cost the vendor no more than $500 a month; now vending opportunities with GPP cost as much as much as $20,000 annually; an average of $1,667 a month.
The cost of vending with GPP has caused many long-time vendors to stop their operations that has provided them a productive way of life for decades: jobs for others, and thriving downtown entrepreneurial economy for visitors to enjoy. From Forsyth and Peachtree to Wall and Peachtree, we counted approximately 17 vending units that are operated by GPP for street vendors to take advantage of to run their businesses, but the problem is only two of those 17 locations were occupied.
A vending unit that is operated by Mr. and Mrs. Lakhani struggles with day to day operations mainly because of the cost of rent. Mr. Lakhani explains, “we are not making enough money to turn a profit because everything goes to operation costs. We want to close, but we don’t know what else we would do. So, we hold on hoping that things will turn around and get better for us.”
Asked if GPP and/or city officials have ever approached him and his wife to negotiate new terms, Mr. Lakhani says, “No. No one has ever come to speak with us or to show any concerns to see how we are doing.”
Up the street from Mr. Lakhani on Marietta Street is another street vendor renting one of two of the booths in the Barbara Asher Square area. Not wanting to give his identity, he told us that sales are up and down, and they are never consistent. Selling a variety of items besides snacks and drinks, this vendor sells everything from pocketbooks, shirts, hats and more.
Mentioning that he and Mr. Lakhani are the only vendors in the entire area that has consistently operated a booth since the vending program with GPP started in 2013. “The vending booth next door is sometimes in operation, but once someone moves in, they always end up moving out.”
Close to Five Points on Wall and Peachtree I found another street vendor that I also have known since my teenage years. Not wanting to give his name, he was sitting up against one of the vendor’s booths selling single cigarettes to pedestrians walking back and forth along Peachtree Street.
He invited me to sit down with him to talk. Since I was a teenager, I remember this man having a several tables on Peachtree right in front of Five Points. He would be out there selling everything, if it was raining and I had no umbrella, I knew to go downtown to buy an umbrella from him or either Donny.
By the look upon his appearance, he didn’t appear to be at his best, he looked to be beyond his worst, hitting rock bottom. He says that he was making good money and was able to support his family with it, “I used to look forward to going to work and meeting new people. People used to take their lunches and just come to me for an apple and a bottle water, and talk.”
He told me about the good times when he first started vending in the 60s, claiming to be the first vendor to be downtown. Majority of his business came from African-Americans from within the local communities, but over the years as downtown Atlanta’s presence grew, and more and more of the demographics of the area begin to change, he began to see a change in street vending.
The vendor speaks of another vendor bragging on television how he was making $800 to $900 a day in vending concessions, and how that caused an uproar with city officials and started the regulation of street vending on city property. He laughs, “there’s was no way any vendor could make that much money down here unless there were selling a dope or something or a lot of those Gucci pocketbooks.” He goes on by adding, “on average a vendor made about $200 a day.”
Efforts were made to contact Central Atlanta Progress’s president, A.J. Robinson, and the office of Mayor Kasim Reed before the publication of this article to find out what are the plans with the vending locations and its failed attempt to approach street vending differently, but no effort were made to respond to provide to us.
As of this morning, the webpage promoting the city’s vending program on Central Atlanta Progress’s website was taking offline: http://www.atlantadowntown.com/initiatives/vending was taken down after contacting them. The webpage promoted having 20 vending units downtown and will set a new era in street vending, and a description of their plans to expand to 100 units by 2014.
As of today, only 17 of the 20 units exist. I know of two of those units were sitting in front of the Equitable building at 100 Peachtree; it is unclear to me where the third was.