Since last summer, numerous passersby have gotten a taste of honey-glazed salmon, lamb chops, mac and cheese and honey barbeque wings, among other soul food delicacies, while walking along 14th Street in Columbia Heights.
They’ve been able to do so, thanks to Sunni Teez Kitchen, a small Black-owned business that set up shop under a large black tent, just a few feet from the entrance of the DC USA Shopping Complex.
Since launching Sunni Teez Kitchen last July, District couple Sunni Stuart and Shaun Stepney have hired three people, including a chef. They’ve also started the process of transferring their LLC from Delaware to the District, all with the goal of eventually securing a brick-and-mortar location.
In the interim, Stuart and Stepney continue to join other Black and brown vendors along a portion of 14th Street and Irving Street in Northwest, who sell a variety of foods, clothing, accessories and artwork — all while under the threat of police harassment.
With a vendor decriminalization bill making its way through the D.C. Council, however, all of that will soon change. Stuart said she welcomes that change, especially for her family and other Black Washingtonians working for a slice of the economic pie in a city that has become nearly unrecognizable.
“I pour into the community and have youth coming up to chat with us and ask for community service hours,” Stuart said. “The police harass us and lie about people being mad at us, [but] it doesn’t affect us because we have people vouching for us. Our supporters talk and get the police away. We need to stick together so we can take over.”
In early February, the D.C. Council Committee on Public Works and Operations sent the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act to the Committee of the Whole.
If passed, the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act removes criminal penalties for street vending and allows the mayor to establish sidewalk vending zones. The legislation also waives licensing-related civil citations for vendors who obtain an individual sidewalk vending license or register with a sidewalk vending zone manager.
Other aspects of the bill include the significant reduction of licensure costs, abolishment of criminal background check requirements for vendors applying for their license and the removal of barriers that prevent licensed vendors from selling multicultural food and whatever else they cook in their home kitchen.
D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the Committee on Public Works and Operations, co-introduced the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) earlier this year.
The bill has elicited the support of ANC 1A (Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods), which recently passed a resolution expressing support for the decriminalization of street vending. The resolution cited data and recommendations from the DC Police Reform Commission and Beloved Community Incubator with the American University Washington College of Law.
This has been Nadeau’s third introduction of the legislation that was, in part, inspired by a District youth’s violent encounter with MPD while vending with her family.
In 2019, District police officers confronted then 14-year-old Genesis Lemus while she was selling plantain chips and corn atole. They inquired about a vending license and threatened to call the Child and Family Services Agency on Genesis’ family. During the encounter, an officer grabbed Genesis’ brother and pushed her to the ground, which she later said caused a significant knee injury.
Genesis later filed a complaint about the incident. Meanwhile, street vendors and advocates coalesced around Genesis, her mother and others who had been harassed by MPD, oftentimes at the behest of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, for vending along 14th Street in Northwest.
Nadeau, who had already been in communication with street vendors and advocates for years, said that the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act seeks to address the numerous hurdles that street vendors experience while trying to make a dollar.
“For a while, MPD stood down but we’re hearing that enforcement is ramping up,” Nadeau said. “The Department of Licensing will call MPD to ramp up, especially with young people and people of color. It’s difficult to become a licensed vendor. If you have citations, you have to pay them. It costs several thousand dollars to get through the licensing process. It’s not meant for a low-volume operator.”
Street vending has been a path of economic freedom for Black people and other marginalized groups for hundreds of years. In the early 1800s, Alethia Browning Tanner and Sophia Browning Bell sold produce in Lafayette Park in downtown D.C. to purchase their freedom and that of numerous enslaved family and friends.
Street vending has since become a main source of income for returning citizens, immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Central America. Various laws over the last few decades have increased the barrier of entry for street vendors and confined street vending to certain parts of the District, which in turn has decimated the pool of street vendors by the thousands.
Even so, many people, like a local couple known as Rose and Lovely, continue to set up shop in Columbia Heights to make their living. Since 2021, Rose and Lovely have been selling copper and crystal jewelry under Emporium Dynasty and KeKe’s Kreations.
The couple, hailing from Norfolk, Virginia, moved to the D.C. area in search of economic opportunities. Before establishing roots in Columbia Heights, they sold their wares in other parts of the District, including Malcolm X Park in Northwest.
For Rose, the allure of street vending lies in the low startup costs for someone like; he also considers himself and others like him who haven’t found much success navigating the traditional job market.
Since learning the craft of jewelry making from his uncle five years ago, Rose has been able to support his family and maintain some consistency in his life. He recently took his craft to the next level when he enrolled in the Baltimore Jewelry Center, a community arts education space.
Rose said immersing himself in the hustle culture of Columbia Heights has inspired him beyond comprehension.
“I hear a lot of people say this reminds them of New York where they can set up shop to advance their business,” Rose said. “Having this spot saved my life. Without this opportunity, I would be doing something else. It has kept me out of trouble and out of jail when I wasn’t able to prove who I was [with government ID]. I still paid for a tent. When there’s a way, you have to make a way.”
Excellent article Mr.Collins!
I had no idea our ancestors Alethia Browning Tanner and Sophia Browning Bell s bought their freedom and that of their family while vending in front of the White House in Lafayette Park. Amazing.
thank you Sam P.K. Collins, excellent article. I did street vending years ago, as well as many of my friends, as one of my earliest entrepreneur efforts . It was an easy entryway into entrepreneurship. Some of us got licenses, but many of us, could not afford the vending licenses, so we did what is called renegaded, by any means necessary, selling where we could in parks, corners, storefronts, in front of businesses, etc. Those who were licensed were still often harassed by the police. There was also a lot of turfs struggles among the vendors who were legit and those who were not. As Chocolate city became less “chocolate”, it seemed that vending was not as welcomed. I created my own African American Holiday Expo in 1981 which later changed its name to MarketPlace Festival, as a way of supporting vendors and craftspersons to come out of the street environment and harassment. That event went on from 1982 to 2005, giving credence to the need for entrepreneur opportunities. Today, in 2023, there are some of seasoned vendors still out there on D.C. corners, and we honor them for holding on to the tradition. I affirm this bill will be passed as it will help the economy for many and open the door for viable world of entrepreneurship for all.
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