By Meaghan McGoldrick and Paul Frangipane
DYKER HEIGHTS — A new city law banning street vendors from the Dyker Heights holiday light display was meant to make the world-famous event a little merrier for locals. But, at the height of another viewing season, at least a few food trucks have taken up residence regardless. The police say their presence is technically legal — because the vendors are employing veterans.
Disabled veterans, under city law, are exempt from certain restrictions on street vending in order to give them an edge on the competitive licensing process.
Police have cracked down on “rent-a-vet” schemes in tourist-saturated areas, such as Midtown Manhattan, in years past.
“The vendors are paying disabled veterans to work on their trucks,” Capt. Robert Conwell, commanding officer of the 68th Precinct, told the Brooklyn Eagle. Local cops noticed the strategy at the first sign of a seller this season. “We summonsed and seized a truck the first night, and then the vendor told us he would be hiring the veterans,” Conwell said.
The neighbors have also discovered the loophole — and they aren’t happy about it.
“The police tell me they cannot do anything about it because he’s a veteran,” 62-year-old resident Nick Dellas told the Eagle Wednesday night. Dellas, who has lived near the corner of 83rd Street and 11th Avenue for 35 years, was referencing an ice cream truck parked just one block away.
Dellas said cops have told residents that their hands are tied. Another neighbor, who would not give her name, said she was told the same thing.
“I don’t want him here,” the woman said of the peddler, whose truck, she added, shakes her home, keeping her up at night. “It is making a wreck out of my house. That generator makes noise all night and it’s hard to relax. It’s hard to sleep.”
Dellas raised similar concerns. “I have to smell the fumes. I can hear the generator all the way in my bedroom,” he said. “It’s totally unreasonable and [the police] cannot do anything about it.”
The 28-year-old operator of Wednesday evening’s lone ice cream truck told a different story — one that made no mention of veteran status. “The community wants me to be here, just me,” vendor Eddie Cumart said.
Cumart’s ice cream company Brooklyn Ice Cream (unrelated to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory), was founded by his grandfather in 1925. He operates nearly 30 trucks across the city, including at the Dyker lights, where, he said, he’s been slinging hot chocolate and other sweet treats for nearly a decade.
“I’ve been working in this neighborhood since 2010,” he told the Eagle. When asked if he knew about the new ban, Cumart maintained that it doesn’t apply to him due to his tenure. “They can’t touch me,” he said of the police, who stopped by his truck at least once Wednesday night to measure his distance from the curb.
The City Council voted in October to pass legislation that would effectively ban vendors in the area. The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Justin Brannan, was meant to help Dyker Heights residents whose complaints of congestion, noise and pollutionhave skyrocketed over the past few years.
The text of the bill, which was pushed quickly through the council so it could take effect this season, prohibits vendors from parking between 10th and 13th avenues from 81st Street to 86th Street, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. (Contrary to Cumart’s remarks, the bill mentions nothing about exemptions based on tenure.)
Since the late 1980s, those from neighboring communities have made the trek by foot, bike, subway and car to Dyker Heights to marvel at the displays. But, in recent years, the lights have put the otherwise quiet Brooklyn neighborhood on the map, much to some residents’ dismay.
At an oversight hearing on the issue before Brannan’s bill was passed, the lawmaker estimated that more than 150,000 spectators would attend this season.
“Just imagine the joy of a 40-day ‘unofficial’ street festival happening outside your door on a quiet tree-lined block, or the noise and fumes from an idling ice cream truck for 10 hours a day — not exactly the Norman Rockwell Christmas of your dreams,” he said at the time.
As for the current situation, Brannan told the Eagle explicitly, “Nobody is allowed to vend in the Dyker Lights zone.”
“What’s happening here is an unscrupulous vendor is trying to use a legal loophole to get around the law. These vendors don’t care about our community; they just want to make a quick buck. Now they are exploiting veterans? It’s wrong,” he said. “The law is clear. The city needs to enforce it.”
Josephine Beckmann, the district manager of Community Board 10, said she still considers the bill’s passing a big win for the neighborhood — but there have been anywhere from two to three vendors a night this season, as opposed to upwards of five last season. She said the board will be pushing back on the city’s decision to honor the loophole.
“We think the law the Councilman Brannan worked to pass is clear. It’s a very small few blocks that are restricted, and it was done for safety reasons,” Beckmann said, adding that the vendors in question are basically “renting” disabled veterans to sit outside their trucks to avoid the ban.
“We, as a board, disagree with that,” she said. “The law is the law and it was meant to make things clear and simple: no vending whatsoever from 10th to 13th avenues and from 81st Street to 86th Street.”
The board and the Dyker Heights Civic Association have been sounding the alarm over the holiday lights’ impact on the area for the past several years. They have asked the NYPD to assign additional traffic cops to the area, among other measures.
Conwell said his officers will continue to check on operators’ credentials nightly. The precinct’s Neighborhood Coordinating Officers will also “check these trucks on a nightly basis to make sure they are in complaince with all other laws,” he said.
In the meantime, locals are still holding out hope for a vendor-less holiday season.
“Listen, this is residential, this is not Coney Island,” said Dellas. “This is not 42nd Street, it’s a residential area. You can’t be there from 4 o’clock to midnight.”