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History > General History > The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part Two.

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submitted by Steve Frangos on 12.10.2006

The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part Two.

Steve Frangos, c. 2006

Contact, Steve Frangos

It is one thing to say “Greeks had to struggle to succeed in America,” and another to be able to quote reports from the New York Times of Greek immigrants fighting in the streets to stay alive. Documenting the attacks against Greek immigrants is all the more damning since without exaggeration any sizable city in the country can have its local press surveyed for exactly this same kind of news coverage. It is an effortless project.

Legal Questions

None of the local ordinances in New York City were ready for the massive influx of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and 1920. All of this didn’t stop native-Americans from having Greeks arrested for whatever infractions they believed the peddlers had made. On June 25, 1895 “Stephen Vail, a member of the City Improvement Society and the Reform Club, living at 10 West Thirty-Ninth Street, had John Vlachos, a Greek fruit vender, arrested Sunday for pushing a cart of cherries down Fifth Avenue and offering to sell some of the fruit, which Mr. Vail supposed was a violation of the law.

Vlachos was arraigned in Jefferson Market Police Court yesterday, but the charge did not hold good. There was a dispute between Justice Simms and the complainant as to whether selling fruit Sunday was a violation of the law, but, as neither the city ordinances nor the Criminal Code contain any such law as Mr. Vail supposed existed, the prisoner was discharged. His friends threatened to sue Mr. Vail for false arrest.”

The whole question of having a license to peddle is moot if the officers of the law ignore the law. On June 14, 1893 in the Brooklyn Eagle we hear that: “[F]our Greek peddlers were arraigned before Justice Walsh this morning charged by Officer McCarthy with obstructing the sidewalk on Fulton street in the neighborhood of Liebmann Bros store. Each of them wore regular peddler’s badges. The men were arrested, it was said, because of complaints made to headquarters by a florist, who has a store in that locality. They said that they tried to keep moving, and Justice Walsh discharged them, saying that their license to peddle on the street gave them the right to carry in trade there.”

On August 13, 1911, a letter to the editor, “Peddlers of Eatables” “Pushcart and Sidewalk Vendors Obstruct Traffic and Occasion Nuisances,” succinctly sums up what appears to be the real problem of explosive growth of street peddlers: “This obnoxious manner of selling candy and fruit on the downtown streets by Greek peddlers, many of whom have no license, must hurt the trade of the dealers who pay high rent for their stores. But there are other reasons why our busy streets should be rid of this form of peddling.

Traffic is often obstructed by the pushcart men on some of the narrower streets. Buyers of their penny wares cast the refuse not only on the streets, but on the sidewalks, never thinking to throw it into the tubs provided for that purpose. Banana peelings and other refuse thus scattered are dangerous to pedestrians. The danger and uncleanness from this source can be minimized only when the ban is put on the pushcart fruit man. Another objection might be made especially to the penny candy peddlers, who sell from open boxes and cases, exposed to the flying dirt and dust, and who subject the candy every now and then to a cleaning (?) with a worn-out feather duster.

The peddlers should be forbidden from obstructing the downtown streets, and would be just as well if licenses were granted to none of them (New York Times).”

While this argument sounds logical, on the surface, it is the selective employment of the laws and licenses by city officials that proved problematic. The average New Yorker could see these attacks and payoffs as yet another letter to the editor clearly demonstrates:

“The charge brought by a Greek peddler against Policeman McGarth of the Oak Street Station of demanding tribute money, and the statement made by the peddler that tribute money, or “monthly taxes,” are regularly paid by street peddlers to the police, ought to be of interest to all good citizens…This peddler was arrested for a violation of the city ordinance. I have no fault to find with that, but a walk through Grand, Hester, Essex, Rivington, Stanton, Ridge, Norfolk, and Suffolk Streets, or other streets and localities in the east side, will reveal that not the slightest attempt is made to enforce the city ordinances, and police have often been seen in familiar conversation with those who were openly violating the city ordinance for the regulation of peddlers…

It is a blot upon our name and fame as a city, that while so many thousands of dollars should be spent for enacting laws, and for keeping up a large army of Magistrates and police to administer justice and enforce obedience to law, laws are not enforced and police and other officials are openly accused of receiving money for permitting law violators to go unpunished (New York Times September 13, 1900).”

I can’t help but say that some of these news stories cause me to question the common humanity of the police and city officials. On May 15, 1899, police arrested some 150 peddlers during a raid on Coney Island. This mixed group of foreigners included newly arrived Italians, Germans, Russians and Greeks. Among those arrested was “one old man [with] $75 in five-dollar gold pieces” in his possession. “He clung desperately to the money, explaining that it had taken him years to save so much, and that when he had amassed enough he intended to return to Greece to die. When told that the penalty for peddling trinkets would be only about a dollar, he begged that they take the dollar and give him back his gold. When he found this could not be done he broke into loud lamentations, and in Greek and English alike cursed his luck, the police, and his adopted country in a most emphatic manner.”

Crooked Cops

Crooked New York City police officers preyed upon the newly arrived immigrants. Obviously these individual acts found in the newspaper accounts cited in this series represent only the tip of the iceberg. Also any one watching the dates of when these articles were published will note it took some time for this problem to be completely dealt with.

On September 11, 1900, we learn that “[C]harges of extortion were made against the police of the Oak Street Station in the Centre Street Court yesterday by a Greek peddler, Karalabos Kololouros. He was brought before Magistrate Cornell during the morning session. His face was badly cut, his clothing torn nearly to pieces, and one of his eyes was entirely closed.

The man had been arrested by Policeman John McGarth of the Oak Street station, and he said that the same policeman had assaulted him as he was being led from the Tombs to the courtroom across the “Bridge of Sighs.” Magistrate Cornell at first fined the prisoner $2 on McGrath’s charge that he had violated the corporation ordinance regulating pushcarts…As the Greek was leaving the room he kept talking loudly in his own language, and an interpreter told the Court that he was accusing Policeman McGarth of having arrested him because he refused to give him $2. Magistrate Cornell immediately had the peddler brought back, and listened to his story.

Kololouros said through an interpreter that McGrath had demanded $2 of him, and that he had declined to pay it because he had already given his “monthly taxes” to a policeman whom the pushcart men know as “Alex.”… Magistrate Cornell at once remitted the prisoner’s fine and sent him back to the Tombs to await the afternoon session, so that an expert interpreter might be summoned…”

Later when, “Captain Vredenburgh [of the Oak Street Station] was asked in court what he thought of the matter he said to the Magistrate: “I think he [Kololouros] is a lair. All them Greeks are lairs. When your Honor has as much experience with them fellows as we have you won’t believe them so readily.” The Captain went on to say, “It makes me mad to see so much trouble over a Greek. They’re a lot of liars, your Honor. You can’t believe them. They’re liars.”

Not all New York Policemen were crooked and many went undercover to maintain the law. We see this in when “Commissioner Greene yesterday dismissed from the police force Peter Atwell of the Church Street Station, who was detected by Capt. Albertson in the act of coercing a Greek peddler in the Bowery to give him some money. Atwell was in full uniform, while the Captain was in plain clothes. As soon as Atwell recognized his superior he started to run, but Albertson overhauled him, and his trail and conviction followed.

Gen. Greene sent out a review of the case with certain caustic commented, with orders that it be read twice to the policemen from the Captain’s desk in every station house in the five boroughs (New York Times March 4, 1903).”

Yet this extortion continued. An especially noteworthy case involved John Olssen (also spelled Olson, in some accounts). “Mounted Sergt. John Olssen of Traffic Squad C who has been on the police force ten years, rode up to Sixteenth Street and Irving Place yesterday afternoon, dropped his glove in the street, and presently dismounted and began adjusting his horse’s bridle.

While the Sergeant was thus busied, with his back to the fallen glove, Speros G. Carlas, a Greek peddler…walked over to where the glove lay and placed three marked $5 bills in it. As Sergt. Olssen picked up his glove and remounted his horse Inspector O’Brien of the Traffic Squad and Lieut. Costigan of the Central Office emerged from a nearby doorway, where they had been concealed, and, grabbing hold of Olssen’s bridle, arrested him on the charge of extortion (New York Times July 22, 1910).”

It took nearly two years to resolve this open and shut case. “John Olson, an ex-police sergeant attached to Traffic Squad B, was sentenced to not less than three years nor more than four years and six months in Sing Sing by Judge O’Sullivan in General Sessions yesterday after he had been convicted of attempted extortion, in that he tried to extort $15 from two Greek peddlers on July 2, 1910 (New York Times February 29, 1912).”

Rather than see this conviction as a blow against corruption during the sentencing of Olson “Judge O’Sullivan said that he regretted the fact that his conviction would increase the tendency on the part of jurors in criminal cases to discredit the testimony of policemen.”

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