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New York's shabby newsstands to vanish

By Associated Press
Published September 23, 2004

NEW YORK - For 32 years, Bernard Uhlfelder has spent most of his working hours inside a cramped 4-by-12-foot shack on a busy Manhattan corner, surrounded by magazines, newspapers and breath mints.

Uhlfelder, 64, and his newsstand at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue are as much a neighborhood fixture as the subway entrance nearby. His father hawked newspapers on the same street in the 1940s. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but as Uhlfelder says, it's a living.

Now Uhlfelder and hundreds like him who have worked their newsstands for years are about to make the forced transition from owner to renter.

Under a law passed last year, the city will replace its nearly 300 newsstands - a collection of often shabby, decades-old corrugated-metal shacks, owned mostly by individuals - with uniform stands owned, designed and maintained by one company.

What the new ones will look like has yet to be decided. But they will display advertisements, which city officials expect to bring in millions in revenue.

While Uhlfelder will be allowed to continue to sell newspapers on his corner, he will lose ownership of his newsstand - and, he argued, New York will lose a link to its past.

"There's nothing left of New York anymore," he said. "There's no street furniture that resembles New York City."

City officials say the new design will clean up the look of New York's bustling sidewalks and make it easier to walk around town.

But others say the disappearance of the old shacks will rob the streets of New York of their variety and hurly-burly. They see the move as another example of creeping corporate uniformity - the same process that has brought the Gap and Barnes and Noble to neighborhoods of mom-and-pop stores and turned XXX-rated Times Square into a family-friendly shopping district.

Mary Whalen, whose family has owned a newsstand at the corner of William and Wall streets since 1922, said her stand is "an institution" - not just a structure.

"We're part of what makes New York New York," she said.

The newsstand effort is one of a string of city attempts to generate revenue. Snapple received a five-year, $166-million contract from the city to sell drinks in city schools, and the city is considering selling naming rights to some of its parks. The transit agency is exploring whether to sell naming rights to subway stations, bus lines, bridges and tunnels.

In exchange for the exclusive right to sell advertising on sleek new street furniture - newsstands, bus stops, bus shelters and pay toilets - the still-to-be-chosen newsstand company will pay the city about $400-million over 20 years.

By comparison, news vendors now pay a $1,076 license fee every two years, which brings the city roughly $160,000 a year.

Five companies are vying for the contract. NBC Universal, owned by NBC and Vivendi Universal, said it has joined forces to bid with JCDecaux, which maintains bus shelters, public toilets and other fixtures in 3,500 cities around the world.

Meanwhile, Uhlfelder and 10 other newsstand owners have sued the city, saying the law violates their constitutional rights by seizing their property without compensation. They also argue the city is violating their First Amendment rights by forcing them to "associate themselves with advertising messages to which they have not consented."

City officials argue, among other things, that the plan will make city newsstands handicap-accessible and that vendors will be able to continue working at their corners. The lawyers are expected in court next month.

Another plaintiff is Mike Patel, who has spent 12 hours a day for more than 25 years in his stand at Chambers Street and Broadway. Patel fears the city values corporations and "the big people" over New Yorkers like himself.

For Uhlfelder, the newsstand idea is a sorry way to end his career.

"If you've gone through all the trouble so this could be your property, it doesn't seem fair that someone who hasn't done anything can come along just because they've got the money and take over," he said.

[Last modified September 23, 2004, 01:14:15]


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