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Caveat Vendors

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If Giuliani made quality of life a do-or-die issue for his successor, Bloomberg has been in nonstop do mode -- announcing zero-tolerance policies on everything from squeegee men to prostitution. And now he seems to have scored a victory that eluded even Rudy, by clearing midtown of the once-ubiquitous street vendors who specialize in faux cashmere and $10 "Rolexes."

"We'd never really been able to get rid of them," says Tom Cusick, the president of the Fifth Avenue Association Business Improvement District. "We'd made dents, but they would work in packs of ten or twelve, with lookouts. But right now, this is as good as it's ever been."

Naturally, the NYPD agrees. "Obviously, we're having some success," says Lieutenant Brian Burke, a police spokesman, adding that a much-publicized crackdown on fake NYPD and FDNY merchandise around ground zero helped jump-start the midtown campaign.

But the battle isn't over yet. For years, the city has had a tortured, and often litigious, relationship with peddlers, especially those who sell their own art. "All of the vendors have been under constant harassment by the police," says Robert Lederman, a semi-professional gadfly who used to paint portraits of "Ghouliani," complete with Hitler mustache. "The cops are citing laws that don't apply," claims Lederman, "and in some cases trumping up arrests as disorderly conduct."

Jack Nesbitt, an artist whose work was recently confiscated in front of moma, says Bloomberg is crushing a crucial part of the cityscape. "He's a self-made billionaire," says Nesbitt. "How can he come down on the entrepreneurial spirit of people marketing their art?"

"We'll challenge this latest stuff," vows Lederman, who in August won a federal lawsuit against Giuliani for artists' right to sell their work without a permit.

Lieutenant Burke counters that the police have been targeting only illegal vendors, not outsider artists. "If an artist is blocking pedestrian traffic, we might say something. But that's not what we're going after."

And over on Fifth Avenue, Cusick is prepared for more fighting. "Let's see what happens when the weather warms up," he says. "We may have reached critical mass, where the vendors have finally decided they can't make money here. Or we may just be in a lull in the never-ending cat-and-mouse game."


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