Fighting over the most expensive Christmas tree lot in New York City

Prices are higher in New York City. This even extends to the cost of renting Christmas tree lots which has led to a battle between two New York City Christmas tree entrepreneurs:

“SoHo Square,” says Scott Lechner, who pays the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation close to $50,000 a year to sell trees here, “is the most expensive site in the world.” He doesn’t sound proud of it.

But Lechner must bid high to stay ahead of his onetime protégé, George P. Smith, who has been on something of a spending spree since he outbid Lechner and took over his Washington Market space in 2007. Smith has also made waves with a huge takeover bid for the Marine Parkway spot in Brooklyn, and has tried to do the same in SoHo and elsewhere.

Smith now has seven locations; Lechner has nine. The two are bitter enemies. Lechner calls Smith an “unsavory individual,” who was “fired by my organization for malfeasance and dishonorable conduct.” (“He hates my guts,” Smith says.)…

The contested Washington Market space — one of 21 the parks department has auctioned off to vendors for the month — was the site, in 1851, of the first urban tree lot in the United States, for which a Catskill woodsman named Mark Carr paid a silver dollar in rent. Today, Smith says he plays close to $30,000 a year for a mere 33 days of sales.

Even in the nation’s most expensive ZIP codes, these rents are, for the moment, somewhat unusual. Rents for many other tree sales sites in the city remain in the low thousands. In 2011, a space on Central Park West was $1,150. DeWitt Clinton Park on West 44th St. was $2,500. Essex Playground, $3,960.

The rest of the story notes that this has been a good thing for the city’s parks department whose is raising more revenue in the competitive bidding for these lots. With many cities facing fiscal issues, I’m sure New York City is happy to have this extra money. Of course, this has repercussions: people buying trees at these lots now pay higher prices.

This could lead to an interesting discussion about whether Christmas trees should be treated more like public goods that shouldn’t be so expensive. For a resident of Manhattan who has no individual vehicle, acquiring a Christmas tree, real or fake, could be a difficult task. This sounds like a more limited market where the consumer is already behind and may not be able to comparison shop much. The average suburbanite, on the other hand, has more options.

This also reminds me of sociologist Mitchell Duneier’s ethnography Sidewalk. Toward the end of the book, Duneier discusses how a family who comes to the city for a month each year to sell Christmas trees is treated much differently than the homeless black men who are street vendors in the community all year long. The contrast is striking: because the tree vendors are white and respectable, local residents interact with them regularly while having more antagonistic relations with the black street vendors. Apparently, getting into the Christmas tree game in New York City takes some major money and this limits who can can sell such goods and participate in community life.

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