Street fairs have lost their street cred.
New Yorkers, and that includes Mayor Bloomberg, have finally jumped on the bandwagon that I hopped on almost a decade ago when from two blocks away, I spied the tents, the balloons and the banner informing me that I could switch my long distance carrier right there on Second Avenue. All I could think was, “Oh crap, there’s a street fair.”
This sentiment is a far cry from my initial reaction long ago when I stumbled upon my first urban carnival, which spanned 52nd Street from the chi-chi Sutton Place to the then-scary Ninth Avenue. I was a sophomore at Fordham, and one Sunday my boyfriend and I took the express bus in from the Bronx. When we got off on Fifth and 59th, we heard rumblings of an event happening a little farther south, gave each other a “why not?” shrug and took a look.
The smell of the exotic foods wafted along the avenue; the finds, the likes of which I’d never seen in my outer borough, were awe-inspiring. I thought it was the most wondrous thing created. (I was 19. Cut me some slack.) I went home hoping that one day I’d get to attend another. Little did I know…
In my post-collegiate years, I came to view street fairs as a venue for New York artisans to introduce their wares to natives, transplants and tourists alike. I was always glad to turn a corner and see the vendors. Sometimes I would even venture into other neighborhoods in search of the bazaars.
Just as the fairs had become a familiar sight, though, so had the sellers. I realized they all “worked the circuit” and each exhibition looked exactly like the last. I also noticed the influx of more and more non-artisan stalls. The sweat socks. The Victoria’s Secret look-a-like underwear. The packaged sheets. Items that gave the distinct impression that they’d just fallen off a truck.
Then there were the aforementioned telecommunication companies giving out their free plastic shopping bags. The banks coaxing shoppers to sign up for credit cards. And to take advantage of the street traffic, storekeepers displaying their sale merchandise on the sidewalk.
The cachet of the street fair was now lost on me.
How, then, would I satisfy my craving for the handcrafted and antique? I turned to the other New York City staple: the flea market. Each has a home base, does not clog traffic and to date, no one at one of those has tried to persuade me to join a new cell-phone plan.
Although there are many, my personal fave is Greenflea on Columbus Avenue between 76th and 77th streets. One recent Sunday, I brought my 10-year-old daughter, who has already had her fill of street fairs. She was thrilled with the outdoor/indoor market, and whine-free because we did not have to walk 30 blocks to revel in the handmade creations (who knew you could solder little frames around postage stamps then hang them from charm bracelets?), vintage pieces, old sports photos, refinished furniture and yes, handbags made out of recycled Capri Sun packaging.
Can any of these things be found at street fairs? Sure. But instead of spending her allowance on 84th Street, only to see a ring she really wants on 67th, or passing up a bracelet in the 70s, then somewhere around the 90s expecting me to double-back to buy it, my girl pointed out that she could walk around the entire enclosed area, look at everything first, then without much effort return to make her purchases.
That’s street smart.
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