Street fairs, vendors make city better

Updated: 2010-06-01 00:00
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One of the delights of living in New York is to take a leisurely walk through street fairs and festivals on weekends.

The one around Washington Square Park last Saturday was an exhibit of arts and crafts with artists pedaling their own works along the streets. Sauntering outdoor on a sunny day is a pleasant alternative to gazing at the treasures and masterpieces in the indoor Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Sunday, the Annual Spring Jubilee hit the Lexington Avenue with vendors from New York’s diverse ethnic communities selling food, drinks, handicrafts and other goods.

If you had eaten beforehand, you would regret not leaving any room in the stomach for the mouthwatering ethnic food on offer: Greek, Thai, Mexican, Italian or French.

In New York, street fairs are rarely restricted to some little alleys, they are more often held on main streets such as Broadway, Avenue of Americas as well as Union Square and Washington Square.

Vehicular curfew is imposed and police are on duty to offer security assurance. The uninterrupted street fairs after the failed Times Square bombing by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad a month ago has demonstrated the confidence of the authorities and police forces as well as local residents.

It was not too complicated either to apply for hosting street fairs or just be a vendor at the many fairs. It is just a few steps away and much of the work can be done online.

If you are simply a customer or sojourner like me, you can easily find the 2010 street fair schedule online.

In fact, street fairs were nothing new in Chinese cities like Shanghai just a decade ago. People shopped for everything from meat, vegetables and fruit to live fish and chicken from vendors on roadsides.

The outdoor bird, golden fish and flower markets in Shanghai are only a memory now since they were wiped out many years ago. Our city leaders, unfortunately, have long believed that street fairs and vendors are a sign of backwardness.

To modernize Shanghai, the city has either moved all the vendors indoors to make them look “civilized” or simply driven them away from the roadsides.

In hectic Shanghai, strolling in the outdoor market, basking in sunshine and breathing fresh air should be a great way to reduce work stress. Wandering in the claustrophobic hall is only likely to worsen the symptoms.

The annual Longhua Temple Fair is now probably the only large outdoor street fair in Shanghai. Will city leaders learn from their New York counterparts to impose vehicular curfew on Shanghai’s Huaihai Road or Nanjing Road for similar street fairs?

A few years ago, the Shanghai government promised to bring vendors back to the street after driving them away in the past decade. Unfortunately, the promises have not been kept.

On the contrary, Shanghai has stepped up its crackdown on street vendors, artistes and musicians ahead of and during the World Expo.

Shanghai has put enormous human and material resources in preparing for the Expo, making it the most expensive in its 160-year history.

In fact, the Expo, or World’s Fair, as it was known in the past, is simply a large street fair with nations, international organizations and big corporations as vendors and exhibitors, like those I saw this past weekend around Washington Square or Lexington Avenue.

Like street fairs, many pavilions will be dismantled after the six-month show.

Shanghai is clearly in love with the Expo, regarding it as a great opportunity to raise its international profile, boost its economy and upgrade its infrastructure. This has been proven mostly true so far.

The Expo is gone in six months’ time. Street fairs by artistes, musicians and food and clothing vendors are the long-lasting ones that will make Shanghai a better city with a better life, as the Expo motto says.