Of food trucks and lawbreaking

It’s no secret that the U.S. economy continues to struggle, particularly on the jobs front.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that lots of people are getting in touch with their inner entrepreneur and are seeking employment via their own small businesses.  Food trucks, although looked down on by some, clearly are a part of this self-starter trend, particularly in certain urban areas like Portland and New York.

Which is why I found a recent NPR Planet Money podcast on food trucks in NYC so interesting. From the transcript:

[T]he city sets lots of rules about where food trucks are not allowed — then lets the truck owners duke it out over the scraps.

You have to be 20 feet away from subway stations and building entrances. Two hundred feet from schools (call it the ice-cream truck provision). And the NYPD just started giving out tickets for selling food from metered parking spots.

“Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park,” says David Weber [author of the Food Truck Handbook].

In other words, NYC on one hand licenses an activity (vending from food trucks) and on the other hand makes this activity illegal (through parking regulations that provide literally no legal spots from which to vend).  Of course, what this really means is (1) that food trucks continue to operate but (2) that they do so in technical violation of the law and subject to the whims of law enforcement’s discretion.

As a lawyer, this infuriates me.  It undermines the rule of law in a number of ways:

  • It tells citizens that one has to break the law simply in order to run a business.
  • It implies that there are two classes of law (laws one must obey and laws one need not) without providing a clear principle on which is which.
  • It institutionalizes an incentive for corruption and discrimination since every food truck operator is now a technical lawbreaker subject to law enforcement’s “discretion” (and thus harassment, solicitation for bribes, etc.).

To be clear:  I do not know whether any corruption or discrimination is taking place, and I am not accusing anyone of anything.  (Indeed, I have no direct knowledge of the situation on the ground and do not live in NYC.)  Taking David’s assertion at face value, however, it is clear that such facts would incentivize corruption and discrimination at the institutional level.

Use data in order to describe Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

A recent NPR report described the changes taking place in the Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C. In addition to calling Washington “Chocolate City” (setting off another line of debate), one of the residents quoted in the story is unhappy with how the neighborhood was portrayed:

Kellogg wrote that “in recent years, even areas like Anacostia — a community that was virtually all-black and more often than not poor — have seen dramatic increases in property values. The median sales price of a home east of the river — for years a no-go zone for whites and many blacks — was just under $300,000 in 2009, two to three times what it was in the mid-’90s.” After profiling one black resident who moved out, Kellogg spoke with David Garber, a “newcomer” among those who “see themselves as trailblazers fighting to preserve the integrity of historic Anacostia.”

But Garber and others didn’t like the portrayal, as even WAMU’s Anna John noted in her DCentric blog, where she headlined a post “‘Morning Edition’ Chokes On Chocolate City.”

On his own blog And Now, Anacostia, Garber wrote that the NPR story “was a dishonest portrayal of the changes that are happening in Anacostia. First, his evidence that black people are being forced out is based entirely on the story of one man who chose to buy a larger and more expensive house in PG County than one he was considering near Anacostia. Second, he attempts to prove that Anacostia is becoming ‘more vanilla’ by talking about one white person, me — and I don’t even live there anymore.”

Garber also complained that Kellogg “chose to sensationalize my move out of Anacostia” by linking it to a break-in at his home, which Garber says was unrelated to his move. Garber says Kellogg chose to repeat the “canned story” of Anacostia — which We Love D.C. bluntly calls a “quick and dirty race narrative.”

Garber continues, “White people are moving into Anacostia. So are black people. So are Asian people, Middle Eastern people, gay people, straight people, and every other mix. And good for them for believing in a neighborhood in spite of its challenges, and for meeting its hurdles head on and its new amenities with a sense of excitement.”

This seems like it could all be solved rather easily: let us just look at the data of what is happening in this neighborhood. I have not listened to the initial NPR report. But it would be fairly easy for NPR or Garber or anyone else to look up some Census figures regarding this neighborhood to see who is moving in or out. If the NPR story is built around Garber’s story (and some other anecdotal evidence), then it is lacking. If it has both the hard data but the story is one-sided or doesn’t give the complete picture, then this is a different issue. Then, we can have a conversation about whether Garber’s story is an appropriate or representative illustration or not.

Beyond the data issue, Garber also hints at another issue: a “canned story” or image of a community versus what residents experience on the ground. This is a question about the “character” of a location and the perspective of insiders (residents) and outsiders (like journalists) could differ. But both perspectives could be correct; each view has merit but has a different scope. A journalist is liable to try to place Anacostia in the larger framework of the whole city (or perhaps the whole nation) while a resident is likely working with their personal experiences and observations.