Three brothers from California are New York's best street chefs -- as in, cart vendors.
An asphalt Samba show. An outdoor southern Mexican feast. A giant showcase for local artisans.
These are some of the possible visions for New York City street fairs presented in a report Thursday by the Center for an Urban Future, which interviewed innovators in the worlds of art, food, culture, urban planning and music to get ideas for how the city could rid itself of generic displays selling tube socks and sausages.
"We're not really living up to the potential of a city as diverse and interesting as New York," said Jonathan Bowles, the center's director and one of the report's researchers. "We want to see street fairs live up to their promise."
Too often, the group says, city fairs are run by a small group of production companies that create cookie-cutter festivals that are "completely indistinguishable from one another" and don't reflect the unique characteristics of the neighborhoods where they're held.
The office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been working to improve the city's existing fairs by streamlining permitting and reaching out to local merchant groups to encourage them to participate, spokeswoman Evelyn Erskine said. Fewer fairs are approved each year, and there has been a moratorium on approving new ones for two years, Erskine said. The mayor said in February that the number might be cut even further because of the overtime costs the events create for the Police Department.
"The street fairs have become, in many people's view, a movable business, a scam, where the same stands simply relocate but never change," Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne said in the report. His suggestion for a new kind of street fair? A flea market on Governor's Island.
Jim Leff, co-founder of Chowhound.com, suggested that fairs could become food festivals featuring the cuisines of the populations of each neighborhood. In Brooklyn's Sunset Park, there could be a southern Mexican fair featuring Oaxacan and Chiapan food. On Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, there could be a Turkish fair. "That level of specificity makes it a lot more tasty and interesting," he said.
Others suggested that fairs could include music, theater and arts performances in different languages. Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, the executive director of the Queens Council on the Arts, suggested "vegetable samosas at a literary event in Jackson Heights and watercress dumplings at a gallery opening in Flushing. The uniqueness of the pairings is what we're looking for."
But Mort Berkowitz, president of Mort & Ray Productions, which runs 14 of the city's 321 fairs, said he already puts a lot of effort into making sure each fair reflects its community.
He works with local merchants, he says, and gives discounts to artisans to broaden the offerings. At one recent fair, a local pizzeria sponsored a pizza eating contest, and local residents participated in a singing competition, he said.