With Hats And Umbrellas, Senegalese Fill A City Niche

Sep 18, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 4:09 pm

Careful planning can transform the shape and life of a city. But sometimes, a city's features develop spontaneously — like the immigrant enclaves that grow around certain jobs and trades in urban centers like New York.

Occupational cliches have been a fact of life in the Big Apple for generations. Historically, New Yorkers thought of Jewish tailors, Italian greengrocers or Irish policemen, says Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist with the City University of New York.

In more recent times, Kasinitz tells NPR's Robert Siegel, a New Yorker might point to "Korean vegetable stand owners, Pakistani cab drivers — before that, it was Russian cab drivers — West Indian nurses and West Indian child care workers."

Kasinitz says social capital — family connections and contacts — created those occupational associations, and still does, even as the immigrant groups change.

In today's New York, one particular group — the Senegalese — occupy a very visible commercial niche, selling umbrellas, handbags, hats and scarves from tables or carts on sidewalks all across the city.

Making A Living On The Weather

Senegalese vendors have become so visible in the past two decades that the group has achieved cliche status among New Yorkers — especially when it rains.

"The joke used to be that you got very depressed when you saw the Senegalese umbrella vendors setting up," Kasinitz says. "Because no matter how nice a day it was, that meant rain was coming soon. They knew."

"We know ahead at least five days," says Cheikh Fall, who set up his table near Radio City Music Hall on a recent afternoon.

Since the sidewalk vendors depend on the elements, he says, they follow the weather forecasts religiously. "We start following the rain from Florida to here, from Chicago to here."

Fall says the vendors know which forecasters to believe and which to discount. And, he says, if you could bet against the weather forecasts, the Senegalese community would be full of rich people.

Fall, 45, is a father of four with a thin mustache and a clean-shaven head. He runs an association of Senegalese vendors that deals with the city over licensing and regulations. His table boasts fedoras, ladies' hats, scarves and sunglasses, but all those items take second place to umbrellas on a rainy day.

Fall says he's the son of an airline executive, but most of his fellow vendors grew up less well-off. When they reached the United States, he says, they gravitated toward a business that feels somewhat familiar.

"Most of them was traders or farmers [back in Senegal]," Fall says. "And if you're a farmer, you have to trade your crops. So coming to a city like New York, where there's no factories, there's no farming ... trading was the only thing that was available and that they can relate to, because they was doing it also back home."

Location, Location, Location

Many Senegalese immigrants also came to New York without papers and were ineligible to work in other jobs.

In Fall's case, he came to attend college 20 years ago. He dropped out, worked as a court interpreter, became a citizen and then enlisted in the Navy.

With $450 and a tip from another vendor about how to connect with wholesalers (go to trade shows, he said), Fall went into business in 2003.

Making a living this way relies on many things, but one is the old adage: location, location, location. When it's raining, Fall says he usually sets up near hotels on 5th Avenue or on Broadway.

And when Apple unveiled its new iPhone, Fall selected Radio City Music Hall, rather than the Broadway Apple Store, based strictly on personal experience.

"People are not focusing on what's next to the Apple Store; they're only focusing on the new product they're going to get," Fall says. "They don't care about the hat, they don't care about sunglasses ... After you go to Apple store, and you bought something you like, or something that's expensive, then [you think], OK, I spent enough money today, I'm not going to buy me a hat."

Fall says Senegalese immigrants bring a strong work ethic that accounts for their success as sidewalk vendors in cities all around the world.

Nearly all of the Senegalese vendors in New York are adherents of a Senegalese branch of Sufi Islam, a very spiritual form of the faith. Fall points to the teaching of a Senegalese sage that guides him and many of his countrymen: "Work like you never gonna die, and worship like you will die tomorrow."

And the work is hard. It takes Fall about 40 minutes to unpack his van and get set up early enough to catch New Yorkers on their lunch break. It takes just as long, he says, to tear down and pack up after the evening rush hour. A bathroom break requires another vendor to watch the table, and friends in nearby restaurants or hotels who will let him use their restroom.

A Constantly Shifting City Tapestry

Fall says he can support his family doing this, but there's no money for extras. So he's trying to move up. Like so many of the city's pushcart peddlers before him, he's taking his business indoors; he and his wife have opened a shop in their Harlem neighborhood.

Perhaps in a generation, vendors like Fall will all be shop owners, making the Senegalese sidewalk vendor as archaic a cliche as the Jewish tailor and the Italian greengrocer.

When asked to speculate about what newer immigrant group may soon fill a new commercial niche in New York's vibrant melting pot, sociologist Philip Kasinitz says Tibetan women are quickly moving into the child care business.

"There aren't too many Tibetans in New York," Kasinitz says, "but they do seem to be quite concentrated in child care work ... [On] the question of the preferred child care worker, people from that part of Asia are now beginning to have that image."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And now, the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME)

CORNISH: So we've heard a lot this year about how cities are planed. But Robert, I hear today you're going to explore a very spontaneous feature of big cities.

SIEGEL: Yes, and it's something that has intrigued me since I grew up in New York City: how immigrants come to this city and slide into particular jobs and trades.

I went to New York last week to learn about one immigrant group that currently occupies one commercial niche. But these urban occupational cliches have been a fact of New York life for generations.

Here's sociologist Philip Kasinitz of the City University of New York.

PHILIP KASINITZ: Historically, of course, people at one time they thought of Jewish tailors or Italian greengrocers or Irish policemen.

SIEGEL: Professor Kasinitz says social capital created those associations - family connections, contacts - and it still does, even if the immigrant groups are different.

KASINITZ: More recently, people would think of Korean vegetable stand owners, Pakistani cab drivers - before that, it was Russian cab drivers - West Indian nurses and West Indian child care workers.

SIEGEL: A guy, a table, perhaps a cart selling some leather goods, handbags or, when it rains, umbrellas.

KASINITZ: Right.

SIEGEL: In New York, I say this and you say?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senegal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SIEGEL: New Yorkers come by these ideas of who is likely to be doing what from experience. For example, this is the intersection of Third Avenue and 86th Street on the east side of Manhattan. And looking down Third Avenue from 86th, there are four stalls in a row just outside the HSBC bank branch. And where do these vendors come from?

EL HAJI: From Africa.

SIEGEL: But from where in Africa?

HAJI: Senegal.

SIEGEL: His name is El Haji and he was sitting in a blue folding chair on the sidewalk, just up from a man who would only give me his name as MD.

So you're from?

MD: I'm from Senegal

SIEGEL: From Senegal.

MD: Yeah.

SIEGEL: As is the more voluble, Chertejong Chahm(ph), a burly man with a shaved head and a table full of acts and handbags, who says he spent 17 years on this spot.

Where are you from originally?

CHERTEJONG CHAHM: Originally I'm from Senegal.

SIEGEL: And what are you selling here?

CHAHM: Everything and anything. I have a beautiful (unintelligible) over there. Let me...

SIEGEL: Next to Mr. Chahm, a 17-year-old high school girl named Fatima was minding her father's table, full of cell phone cases and holders. Where are they from?

FATIMA: Senegal.

SIEGEL: These were Senegalese vendors at work on a sunny day. They've become so visible over the past couple of decades, they have achieved cliche status on the sidewalks of New York - especially when it rains. On a rainy day, they are known - and as Professor Phil Kasinitz will attest - they are fabled for selling umbrellas.

KASINITZ: The joke used to be that you got very depressed when you saw the Senegalese umbrella vendors setting up because no matter how nice a day it was, that meant rain was coming soon.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: They knew.

KASINITZ: They knew.

SIEGEL: I'm standing at the southeast corner now of Sixth Avenue and 51st Street in Manhattan. And either way, if I look down the avenue or down the street, I see a marquee for Radio City Music Hall, one of New York City's most famous locations. And here, right at the corner, two merchants are doing business. Indoors, Brooks Brothers established 1818. Outdoors, Cheikh Fall, who went into business in April 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CHEIKH FALL: We have some shelves where we display some fedoras.

SIEGEL: Fedoras, yeah.

FALL: Yes. And also we have some ladies summer hats. And on the side we have some scarves and we have some sunglasses because the sun is still shining.

SIEGEL: And you already have customers who are looking at the merchandise and...

FALL: Yes, they're looking at the fedoras. Yes, hmm.

SIEGEL: ...feeling it a little bit

FALL: So we're going to greet them and come back to you in a minute.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How much does it cost?

FALL: These are $10 each, like the sign says - $10.

SIEGEL: Cheikh Fall is a 45-year-old father of four, with a thin mustache and a clean-shaven head. He runs an association of Senegalese vendors which deals with the city over licensing and regulations. In slacks, loafers and a stylish patterned shirt, he is every bit the salesman.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just purchased a scarf.

(LAUGHTER)

FALL: A beautiful scarf.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A Pashmina.

FALL: A beautiful Pashmina beautiful scarf.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What's your name?

FALL: Cheikh.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cheikh?

FALL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just purchased the scarf from Cheikh.

FALL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Where are you from, Cheikh?

FALL: Senegal.

SIEGEL: Over the course of a few hours last Wednesday, Cheikh Fall told me about rain and umbrellas, about why Senegalese immigrants go into the business of being sidewalk tradesman, and about how he hopes to get out of it. He told me he's the son of an airline executive, but most of his fellow vendors grew up less well-off.

FALL: Most of them was traders or farmers. And if you're a farmer, you have to trade your crops.

SIEGEL: Back in Senegal.

FALL: Back in Senegal. So coming to a city like New York, where there's no factories, there's no farming, so trading was the only thing that was there available and that they can relate to, because they was doing it also back home.

SIEGEL: A lot of them also came to New York without papers and couldn't work in other jobs. Cheikh Fall came to attend college 20 years ago, dropped out, worked as a court interpreter, became a citizen and then enlisted in the Navy. With $450 and a tip from another vendor about how to connect with wholesalers - go to trade shows, he said - Fall went into business nine years ago.

As for that cliche of the mystical link between the Senegalese and the rain, he says that since the sidewalk vendors depend on the elements, they follow the weather forecasts religiously.

FALL: We know ahead at least five days. We start following the rain from Florida to here, from Chicago to here. So we very much AccuWeather.

SIEGEL: In other words, they watch television. He says they know which forecasters to believe and which ones never to believe. He says if you could bet against the weather forecast, the Senegalese community would be full of rich people. If it is going to rain, you don't sell scarves or handbags. You sell umbrellas.

FALL: That's what I do when it rains.

SIEGEL: When it rains you sell umbrellas.

FALL: Yeah, when it rains we sell umbrellas.

SIEGEL: Where do you set up?

FALL: Usually when it's raining I'm on Fifth Avenue by the hotels or on Broadway by the hotels.

SIEGEL: Location, location, location. When I first spoke on the phone with Cheikh Fall, he told me that he would be setting up Wednesday morning either at Radio City or next to the Apple Store on Broadway. Why did he settle on Radio City that day? Well, you said it was because Apple was unveiling its new iPhone. And he said that he's learned that is bad for his business.

FALL: People are not focusing on what's next to the Apple Store. They're only focusing on the new product they're going to get. They don't care about the hat. They don't care about sunglasses.

SIEGEL: So from experience, you figure those people lining up at the Apple store, they're not going to be good customers are you.

FALL: No. No. No. No. After you go to Apple store and you bought something you like, or something that's expensive, and then, OK, I spent enough money today, I'm not going to buy a new hat.

SIEGEL: Mr. Fall says the Senegalese bring a work ethic with them that accounts for their persistence vending goods on city streets all over the world. Nearly all of the Senegalese vendors are adherents of a Senegalese branch of Sufi Islam, a very spiritual form of the faith. Cheikh Fall cites a teaching of a great Senegalese sage that he says guides him and many of his countrymen.

FALL: Work like you never going to die and worship like you're going to die tomorrow.

SIEGEL: Work like you're never going to die and worship...

FALL: Worship like you die tomorrow.

SIEGEL: The work is hard. It takes about 40 minutes to unpack his van and set up a table early enough to catch New Yorkers on their lunch break. And it takes just as long tearing down and packing up after the evening rush hour. A bathroom break requires friends in nearby restaurants or hotels, and another vendor to watch his table.

He can support his family doing this, he says. But that's it. So he's trying to move up. Like so many pushcart peddlers of New York's past, he's taking his business indoors. He and his wife have opened a shop in their Harlem neighborhood.

Perhaps in a generation, vendors like Cheikh Fall will all be shop owners, and the Senegalese sidewalk vendor, Audie, will be as archaic a cliche as the Jewish tailor and the Italian greengrocer.

CORNISH: So, Robert, if the Senegalese sidewalk vendor is an endangered cliche of the New York economy, care to share on what other new and up-and-coming cliches are taking root?

SIEGEL: While I asked Phil Kasinitz if he saw any new occupational cliches coming over the horizon, and he talked about childcare. Remember he said, as you know very well, West Indian women in New York are often nannies. He says there could be a new cliche competing with them.

KASINITZ: Increasingly there are a lot of Tibetan women involved in this. Probably not a lot, would be too strong, because there are not that many Tibetans in New York. But they do seem to be quite concentrated in childcare work. And with this come all kinds of stereotypes, I'm sure completely fallacious, about meditative Buddhist calm...

(LAUGHTER)

KASINITZ: ...and the ability to deal with screaming, wealthy children. But I think in some ways the question of who is the preferred childcare worker, people from that part of Asia are now beginning to have that image.

He said, Audie, that in some parts of New York, a Tibetan nanny is already a status symbol.

CORNISH: Oh, all right.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Good to know. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.