On a recent Sunday, Oliver Hernandez jumped out of the van driven by his partner. It was 6 a.m. The mom-and-pop shops along Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, were shuttered.
A few folding tables were chained to street signs. A chair was tucked behind a gate.
“I am the first one,” Mr. Hernandez, 41, said. “Most vendors come at 8.”
From the back of the van, he started pulling out buckets of flowers, then his backpack, a chair, a table, a canopy and pots of palm trees.
In 15 minutes, he had set up a garden by the traffic light on the corner. He put the less expensive flowers — carnations and baby’s breath — on the left. Lilies and roses on the right. Then he secured the canopy, tying it to the traffic light with a string.
For decades, some people — like Mr. Hernandez — have taken a chance, and set up stands along Sunset Park’s Fifth Avenue, a vibrant commercial strip of taquerias, sneaker stores, bakeries, dress shops and fruit markets. The neighborhood has a large Latin American and Asian population.
Like 19th century homesteaders, vendors find a free spot — and make it their own. Geography is important: “A corner is a good spot,” Mr. Hernandez said. “People stop for the light.” He has occupied his corner most weekends for four years.
Once claimed, a spot needs to be occupied: Newcomers worry that if they miss a weekend, they will be pushed out.
At the turn of the 20th century, an immigrant selling lemon ices on the street could dream of opening a candy store or ice cream parlor. Many immigrants made that leap, opening small stores by cobbling together money from family and friends.
But most vendors on Fifth Avenue are not dreaming about a shop: Brick and mortar stores are struggling. And the vendors are trying to stay afloat.
These stands are assembled each morning during the week and on weekends. They are as simple as a blanket on the sidewalk covered with rows of bracelets. Or a shopping cart topped by a plank that holds cameras.
They can be elaborate: A woman strings cords around her truck, then hangs children’s party dresses from it.
Isai Gonzalez, 28, erects an 8- by 12-foot metal shed with a red canopy. It takes him 45 minutes. “I had a vision to make it like a house — with a roof,” he said. “I can have my business if it’s raining or cold.”
These vendors arrive by subway, pushing shopping carts filled with wares. They walk from apartments, pulling wagons loaded with homemade food. People show up in vans, trucks and on mo-peds.
In summer, the line of vendors swells as people set up grills and sell sliced mangoes and horchata. Some children accompany their parents, sitting on crates.
By nightfall, all portable real estate is folded or taken apart, packed up — and carried away.
There are underlying tensions: Most vendors in Sunset Park do not have a permit — and a ticket can carry a fine of $1,000. Since the city capped the number of permits years ago, most of the city’s estimated 20,000 vendors operate without one.
In early April, the police and parks enforcement officers shut down the large Sunday market in Sunset Park called Plaza Tonatiuh. In late July, sanitation workers did a sweep through Corona Plaza, renowned for its lively food scene.
Vendors on Fifth Avenue can feel on edge: “We are always alert in case something happens,” said Eduardo Hernandez, 24, who sells tamales with his sister, Yoremi Hernandez, 22.
Some sellers are undocumented immigrants — and fear being deported.
And many vendors worry: Will I go home empty-handed?
Yet, it is a surprisingly stable scene: Some vendors have been there longer than the stores around them. They have raised children and bought houses. Sandy Yu, 47, a mother of four, has been repairing watches on Fifth Avenue for about 16 years.
A gregarious fruit seller, stationed near Ms. Yu, has been there 25 years; people remember buying fruit from him when they were children. A clothing vendor on the same block has been there 31 years.
In recent years, Sunset Park has seen a good deal of change: The development of Industry City — an enormous multi-use complex — on its western edge has produced tensions over gentrification.
Yet, Ms. Yu, the watch repairer, and others describe a gradual economic downturn that started years ago.
“It’s been little by little,” Ms. Yu said, referring to her business drying up.
Ten years ago, on a Saturday, her customers stood in line. People wanted battery changes for their watches. “Now, there are days with no money,” she said.
Yet some young vendors have high hopes.
Mr. Gonzalez, who owns the metal shed, saved $1000 and decided to start a business. He did some thinking: “What do people need? Hats!”
“I’m excited to do promotion,” he said about his two-year-old business. He is on Instagram and is developing a website.
This summer has been slow. “I am only making $600 a week,” he said. But he is undeterred. Unlike many other vendors on street, Mr. Gonzalez wants the brick and mortar. “My ambition is to own a store.”
A Lot of Effort and a ‘Substantial’ Return
“I’m the one who ends up pushing it,” Ariel Huerta, 22, said good-naturedly about the shopping cart loaded with 50 bottles of honey, two tables, and three chairs.
Most Sundays, Mr. Huerta, his mother, Fabiola Gonzalez, 53, and sister, Keren Huerta, 21, thread their way from their apartment in Bushwick to Fifth Avenue. It is about an hour and a half subway commute.
He is not complaining: On a good day selling honey, he makes about $400. On a bad day, $110 to $150. “It’s still substantial,” he said.
Honey is a family tradition: His grandfather kept bees on his property in Soto Y Gama, a village southeast of Mexico City. “He taught my mother and uncle because he needed help,” Mr. Huerta said. The family sold honey in the local marketplace.
His uncle, Florentino Gonzalez, 51, now lives in Albany and works full-time in a pizzeria. “The beekeeping thing is his side gig,” Mr. Huerta said. He keeps hives in Schenectady and sells honey through word of mouth.
“It was my mom’s idea to sell it here,” Mr. Huerta said. She knew a few vendors on Fifth Avenue.
His mother, who works as a housekeeper in Williamsburg, has her own table across the street from her children to try and catch more customers.
“Working with your mom, there’s always going to be disagreements,” he said. “But it’s not unpleasant.”
Recently, his uncle got a new idea — to brew and sell mead, which is made from fermented honey and water. “My mom’s up for that idea,” he said.
Mr. Huerta has his own plan: “I want to save up and buy a small house in Mexico.”
“I see how my uncle and relatives live,” he added, referring to their round-the-clock hours in New York. “Is that what awaits me? No thank you!”
‘If They Don’t Have It, I Change the Price.’
A ramp on 53rd Street becomes a dollar store when Felix Vasquez, 60, shows up.
“Most vendors get six feet,” he said. “Here,” he pointed toward a long, unused ramp that runs alongside a Rite-Aid. “Unlimited!”
On a recent Sunday, children went from crate to crate, pulling out new and used Hess trucks, pop-up books and games, their parents trailing them. “Hess trucks can go for $100 online,” he said. “I don’t go past 10.”
A father came up, offering $5 for a truck. Mr. Vasquez took it. “I use discretion,” he said. “If they don’t have it, I change the price.”
“Thirty percent of my customers know me,” he added. “Seventy percent are new.” He started on that corner in 2014; he took a three-year break when he had cancer.
Another Sunday, his 81-year-old father-in-law helped him put out drills, leaf blowers and power cords. Within two minutes, half a dozen men were rooting in the bins.
“They’re mostly laborers, young guys,” said Mr. Vasquez, who lives on Staten Island and works as a super in Brooklyn. “They generally don’t have their own tools and can’t get ahead.”
Mr. Vasquez buys pallets — bins of closed-out merchandise — from stores for $200.
“If I buy one pallet, the other one is free,” he explained.
On his best days, he makes a profit of $200.
His four grown children don’t understand what draws him. They say, “You’re crazy staying there all day!”
From Guatemala, a Long Line of Weavers
For months, Jaquelin Paola Herrera Chaclan felt torn.
She wanted to sell her colorful crocheted flowers on Fifth Avenue. “But I was afraid to be deported,” said Ms. Paola. About seven years ago, she fled Guatemala with her 3-year-old daughter.
She worried about not having a permit. “I was also afraid — what if I don’t sell anything?”
But last December, Ms. Paola her husband, Adolfo Tzoc, their daughter, and toddler son stepped out of a cab. They unloaded a table and baskets of her tall sunflowers.
“We go all together,” her husband, 34, had told her. He works in a lamp store in Manhattan. “If people say we need to leave, we’ll leave. But we’ll try.”
Since then, Ms. Paola, 31, has been vending most weekends, accompanied by her daughter, Alejandra, 11. Two flowers cost $15. There are tough days — but also times when she glimpses possibilities: A woman recently ordered a dozen vases — filled with her flowers — for a birthday party.
Ms. Paola is passionate about her flowers. At the stand, her hands rarely stop moving as she crochets red roses.
Alejandra is also devoted: “I want to help my mom,” she said. “I don’t want her to be alone.”
As a child, Ms. Paola helped her parents.
She comes from a long line of weavers. On weekends, her parents drove to a town three hours from their village in Guatemala. “They had a stand, same as on Fifth,” she said.
On a recent Sunday, the avenue was crowded: Three girls stood admiring Ms. Paola’s flowers. Both mother and daughter looked flushed, happy; they had sold five flowers and three bracelets. Her husband looked on, holding their son.
At 7 p.m., Ms. Paola and her husband lifted the heavy container packed with her wares. Their children hurrying after them, they practically flew down the street toward their car.