By Amy Zimmer | DNAinfo.com
MANHATTAN — It’s not a hero topped with lettuce and tomato that the Vendy awards’ newest category will recognize.
It’s heroes like the coffee cart vendor who always knows how many sugars you take, or who sold you warm gloves on a frigid day.
The Sept. 24 event on Governors Island will once again feature the city’s top street chefs competing for the coveted Vendy Cup and other awards for culinary prowess, including Rookie of the Year and Best Dessert.
But this year, the event’s organizers, the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, are adding the Most Heroic Vendor to celebrate vendors’ non-culinary contributions.
The idea was born after a fruit vendor in Tunisia lit himself on fire to protest police confiscation of his produce and sparking a wave of unrest across the Middle East.
“This year has been pretty unique in how vendors have been recognized as being the eyes and ears of the street,” said Helena Tubis, managing director of the Street Vendor Project.
It’s the small things that Tubis hopes will inspire people to nominate their favorite vendors.
“It can be as little as remembering what someone likes on their egg sandwich every morning, or saying ‘hello’ as you walk by, or picking up something you dropped,” Tubis said. “It’s courtesy on the street.”
Vendors have a complicated history in the city.
In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia swept street vendors off the streets in an effort to clean up the Lower East Side and East Harlem, among other places, pushing pushcarts into indoor markets including the Essex Street Market and La Marqueta, which was originally known as the Park Avenue Market.
Some historians now argue that removing the pushcarts dampened the vitality of the street.
These days, street vendors are still revered, and reviled.
Gourmands have been following the rise of new fancy food trucks with gusto, while some neighborhoods have been fighting them.
In the Upper East Side, some community groups have been trying to rid food trucks from East 86th Street, claiming they compete with brick and mortar businesses and cause too much congestion on the sidewalks.
Some in the neighborhood have also complained about the Parks Department’s decision to switch from hot dog vendors to more upscale food carts in Central Park, saying the bigger sized gourmet carts create a visual blight on the park.
The Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit advocacy group which hosts the Vendys as a fundraiser event, hopes the new award will build support for their political push to streamline rules and lower fines for street vendors.
Last year’s event drew 1,500 foodies and 18 vendors. It raised roughly $150,000 for the Street Vendor Project, which is a big percentage of the organization’s budget.
“Eating on the street has a whole new slew of followers. It’s become more commonplace, and I believe the Vendys has something to do with that transformation,” Tubis said.
“All of the struggles street vendors are facing, the more public spotlight to shine a light on their contributions,” she said, “the more of a chance we have to change legislation and lower fines.”
General admission to the Vendy Awards on Governors Island on Sept. 24, from 12:30 – 5 p.m., is $95. A limited number of $80 early bird tickets are on sale now.