181st Street

In A Sense of Place, 8. The Vernacular Landscape by Leslie2 Comments

Since I was born, my mom and the rest of my family would take my cousins, sisters (once they were born), and I to 181 street to hang out and shop every weekend. All along 181 street, especially on Saint Nicholas, you can find Latino street vendors. You find the lady my mom has been buying arepa from for 15 years, and the other lady that has contributed to every cheap pair of sunglasses I have ever owned. You can find women and men selling fake Gucci and Calvin Klein purses. You can find makeup and jewelry at a discounted price. You can find fresh fruits and veggies for sale. You got a new phone? You can find a guy selling cases and phone accessories too. The streets of 181st street have always been full of these street vendors changing as the season changes, coming and going.

The sense of place of these specific vernacular vendors is the beliefs Latinos carry over to the United states when they come to make money and make a better life for themselves. Many immigrants come here to the US ready to work extremely hard. Since I was a kid, my mother always told me the key success was hard work. Same with a lot of these workers. When I would stop with my mom, they would look at me and tell me I had to work hard to make lots of money and give my mom nice presents. Many of these vendors would tell stories about when they were younger and give small teachings to the kids and adults stopping by.

These vendors created a comfortable place for people to stop in the middle of the block to shop and converse. These conversations, and interactions created a strong sense of place for many Latinos in Washington Heights. So much so, to this day, my grandmother comes to 181st street at least twice a month to do what we used to do when I was smaller. She comes from Dyckman/ Inwood area (20 street blocks up) to a familiar place.

I recall one day asking one of the vendors, “why don’t you open up a store and sell are your things?” The response always stuck with me because the sense of place created by being a street vendor was greater to these people, and even me at the end. She told me: If I go in to a store, no one I know will know where I am. I’ll just disappear and the friends I have made over the years won’t know where I went. Sure, I’ll have customers if I ever opened up a store, but it’s not meaningful if it’s not with people I know. Also, who wants to pay store rent? That’s a lot of money.

Vernacular places are important because they are made to fit the local places they are in, and often times ties to sense of community and represents a lot of values in said community.


  1. Hi Leslie,
    I think it’s important that street merchants are able to provide a needed service and circumvent the barrier to entry that is the insane New York City rent prices. This is the ultimate stand against a capitalist system that puts an entry fee on a person’s ability to become a merchant of goods. Also, it gives people more options in price ranges that suit them economically. Great post.

  2. This post is so great, I love it so much! I really enjoy hearing people that grew up in NYC talk about their experiences, especially when it comes to having a sense of place, and this post really defines a very “I live in New York and this is my Place” kind of experience. Street vendors are such an important part of NYC culture and I really enjoyed reading about how they are a defining part of your childhood– it makes me happy to know that your mom still can buy arepa from the same lady on the street for 15 years. The sense of community you convey here is so strong, as well– I love the idea of a bunch of kids gathering around a story-telling vendor while their parents shop. Ultimately this is a really special thing and I love that we get to experience it through your eyes.

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