This is my girlfriend,” says Munnu Dewan, 40, a Bangladeshi hot-dog vendor who has fed city employees from his spot in front of 2 Lafayette Street for more than a decade. He’s speaking of his cart, whose only response is to reflect his wink from its shiny metal panels. There is no doubt about his loyalty. When the garage where he parks her at the end of the day locked him out for three nights in a row, he curled up on the sidewalk next to the cart each night to protect it against marauding rats and thieves. “I think if I leave it outside, somebody take my girlfriend,” says Dewan.
Most vendors, who earn $100 on their best days, rent their carts’ overnight homes for at least $300 a month. The berths amid auto-repair shops and horse barns along Manhattan’s western fringe offer no guarantee of conditions. When the Health Department cracks down on a garage, the garage operators often demand that vendors pay for the cleaning and repairs. Recently, the potential for a hot-dog-cart housing crisis has grown: Rising rents make running a garage less profitable, and some operators are completely shutting down.
One group of Bangladeshi vendors couldn’t take the uncertainty anymore. They pooled their money to lease the first vendor-operated garage in the city, on East 4th Street. “We became united in ourselves,” says Ali Imam Sikder, 48.
Beyond the long plastic flaps that protect the entrance to the brightly lit new garage, the scent of raw kebab meat mixes with bleach. It costs the vendors about $7,500 a month in rent, plus longer workdays to keep the garage up to code—adding up to roughly the same amount they used to pay. Still, they say it’s worth it. “At the old place you have a boss. Sometimes he made problems for us,” says Moniruzzaman Mohammed, 37, a garage partner. “Here, everybody’s the boss.”