Street fairs

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New York welcomes summer with smells: hot asphalt, sewers, the Gowanus Canal and meat on the grill. If you’re sniffing the latter and standing at a police barricade, chances are you’re passing one of the hundreds of street fairs held annually across the boroughs.

Where else can you get banana fritters, fried dough, grilled corn, socks, knock-off handbags, sunglasses, three Pashmina scarves for $10, bonsai trees, orchids, a massage, a rug, a subscription to The New York Times and padded nunchucks all on the same block? Ninja weapons aside, however, many city dwellers gripe that the events are generic and annoying.

“Street fairs, once a source of local color, now mostly exasperate New Yorkers,” reads a 2006 report from a think tank, the Center for an Urban Future (nycfuture.org). “There are so many of them that any sense of novelty is gone, and they create clogged streets and unbearable traffic. The worst part, however, is that they are uniformly bland.” CUF suggested increasing outreach and streamlining bureaucratic hurdles to get more local artists and small business owners involved.

That effort didn’t gain much traction, said Tara Colton, CUF’s deputy director. But the number of fairs has decreased in recent years, according to the mayor’s office (322 permitted this year, down from 388 in 2004). The city has worked to reduce fairs, tie them more closely to their communities and created an office to monitor them.

“The [fairs] in Brooklyn are much more local and vibrant,” says Colton, noting the Flatbush Frolic (September 13 on Cortelyou Road) and Atlantic Antic (October 4 on Atlantic Avenue), which are not run by major promoters. Those two “tend to be more related to the original purpose of the street fair” by showcasing the community, says Colton. Major fair organizers, she notes, are not opposed to diversifying, but it isn’t always easy for, say, an empanada maker from the Bronx to participate in a fair on Lexington Avenue.

But are the traffic cloggers a favorite among locals? No one who’s tried to navigate the stands on a summer weekend can doubt their popularity—and when TONY moved the street fair listings online (timeoutnewyork.com/streetfairs), we received dozens of letters from fair advocates.

Not everyone agrees. “I hate street fairs,” says Glenn Mohre, 27, of Ditmas Park. “The standing around, gawking, the useless products being hawked, which will be disposed of as soon as the consumer reaches home, the overpriced food: It all drives me bananas.”—Michael P. Ventura

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