At home in the blue, concrete tunnel

by Gwen Evelyn
Guyana Chronicle
January 15, 2000

AT LARGE: vendors and buyers on Water Street. (Mike Norville photos) STREET competition: another vendors' front.

YOU just can't miss them as you pass along two of Georgetown's main commercial thoroughfares - Regent and Water streets.

Rows of flapping tarpaulin (blue is the favourite colour) offering shelter to many, many vendors and their stalls of merchandise which have virtually taken over the city's pavements.

No longer can these pavements be easily trodden upon.

City Mayor Hamilton Green had novel ideas for the vendors.

He told them to build nice PVC pipe stalls and keep their areas clean.

They were also advised to wear uniforms and for a short (very short) while, some actually complied and wore the required outfits.

Then there was the Merriman's Mall scheme which was intended for vendors.

But business there is bad and vendors have taken to the streets again.

It may have helped if some hucksters had bothered to open their stalls. It is questionable whether all the booth owners are actually pavement vendors, as was originally intended.

Today, with several injunctions pending in court, the City Council is back to square one.

It is difficult to walk on certain sections of Regent Street's pavements and many pedestrians opt for the road instead.

That part of Water Street, between the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) and Stabroek Market, belongs completely to vendors today.

Near the bank, hawkers with their PVC stalls have made themselves comfortable.

Two rows of stalls facing each other extend for a good distance from Robb Street. The blue tarpaulin that has become their trademark, is wrapped securely on to the stall frame and within this cozy concrete-and-tarpaulin tunnel, hucksters ply their trade.

Not to let competition get the better of them, they have come up with a fantastic variety of items to sell. Beautiful wares, ornaments, clothing, electrical items and so on.

They even offer gift-wrapping services and wish you a nice day.

But gift-wrapping is not all they do there.

Some of these street sellers actually live in their tarpaulin walled spaces. No one can see them and it is convenient since they do not have to take all their pretty goods home at the end of every work day.

When nature calls, they urinate wherever and defecate in sheets of newspaper which are flung out on to Water Street.

On an early morning, one can see the newspaper and contents on the road.

Nefarious and sexual activities are also part of their tunnel existence.

Some businessmen decided to make a stand and injunction and orders of mandamus were obtained against the hucksters.

R. Sookraj and Sons on Regent Street was granted an injunction last year, blocking vendors from selling outside the store.

Bheena's, a shoe store also on that street, obtained an injunction too. And so did Tau-ams.

Queensway and Collections Boutique on Water Street took a novel approach.

They got orders of mandamus which forced the hand of the City Council to keep the street outside the two buildings clear.

Queensway was the first to do this but the store's owner was not prepared for what happened after.

Disgruntled vendors in April last year resorted to obeah pantomimes as a form of protest. They even pelted the building.

Today however, vendors are selling away from the store's entrance and the City Council is compelled to ensure that the entrance is clear.

That little storm brewed another scheme.

From talks with the Central Government, the council turned its attention to the vacant Guyana Stores Limited (GSL) bond on Water Street to accommodate what came to be termed the `Queensway vendors' and their colleagues.

It was okayed and preparations were being made. The bond was cleared and things were on the roll.

Then came the halt.

City Hall discovered, through the GSL board, that it had to consider buying the bond at a cost of $130M, leasing it at the rate of $1.3M a month or bartering it for a piece of prime land owned by the council.

Renting or leasing would require a substantial subsidy from the council since vendors cannot afford to pay much.

City Hall was reluctant to part with the land.

And that was the end of the bond idea.

During December, 1998, Deputy Mayor, Mr Robert Williams declared that the City Council was overwhelmed by court injunctions that prevented the municipality from taking action against the hawkers.

Williams had then called on political parties not to interfere when decisions are made about the vendors.

Not much has changed for the year 2000.

The vendors' injunctions remain.

One was obtained by Regent Street hawkers, another by Water Street and the third by traders near Stabroek Market.

City Hall wanted to use the Bourda cemetery to relocate vendors but that also attracted an injunction.

Plans to rearrange the traffic were unsuccessful, too, since two injunctions were obtained by businesses preventing them from relocating bus parks there.

Williams said City Hall has been unable to settle the bond issue.

There has been no shift in the position of the GSL board, he said, explaining that for a leasing arrangement to work, City Hall would have to charge a monthly stall rental of $9,000 each and this would allow the municipality to break even.

But he does not think the vendors can pay that money.

Williams said it is difficult to collect the $2,000 cleansing fee a month from the sellers.

By the way, the Regent Street vendors, thanks to their injunction, do not pay their cleansing fee.

According to Williams, City Hall is trying to restrict the number of vendors on the streets.

Hawkers are taken into the constabulary and their goods seized daily, he said.

Already, with about 3,000 sellers on the streets, there is hardly space to sell and they are fighting each other for spots.

Maybe there should be a special commission to deal with the problem, Williams suggested.

Other than trying to restrict the numbers, all City Hall can do about the Regent Street vendors is wait on the injunctions to be addressed in court, he said.

What about Water Street?

Discussing that can attract injunctions, Williams fears.

People's Progressive Party/Civic Councillor, Mr Ronald `Rocky' Mann is not impressed with the City Council's efforts to remove the vendors.

"City Hall has failed," he said.

Mann does not think Green opposed vending seriously in the first place.

Constables do not take serious action against the vendors who Mann pointed out, litter the drains.

Good and Green Guyana Councillor, Ms Patricia Chase-Green, however, blames the judiciary.

Chase-Green pointed out that according to the by-laws, City Hall has the right to remove the vendors. Yet, the judiciary blocks them from carrying out their mandate, the Councillor said.

As City Hall makes alternative plans and awaits the removal of the injunctions, vendors seem more firmly embedded in the streets.

In the meantime, window shopping is out.

The in-thing is living in on the streets, for some.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples