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As recession lingers, Chicago's unemployed turn to street vending

Unlike Manhattan, Chicago has never been considered a street vendor's paradise. The rules on what can be sold and where have long been strict and vigorously enforced by police.

But the recession and the scarcity of full-time jobs are encouraging more of the Windy City's potential outdoor salesmen to head for the streets in spite of the rules.

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''I'd say that applications are up over last year by a couple of hundred,'' says Charles Sawyer, the city's assistant comptroller for revenue.

While insisting that those licensed can ''basically peddle anywhere,'' Mr. Sawyer does concede that city ordinances dating back to the 1930s require peddlers to keep their goods at least 25 feet west of Michigan Avenue in the area north of the Chicago River.

''And they want you to keep moving - they make it very hard,'' says Rana Levine, who has temporarily parked her ice cream sandwich cart by I. Magnin's side door, a discreet distance from Michigan Avenue. ''It's really the big businesses that don't want us out in front.''

Many key shopping streets such as the Magnificent Mile along fashionable Michigan Avenue are flatly closed to sidewalk sales. Where vending is allowed, most hawkers must move their goods every 15 or 20 minutes. Most Chicago retailers wholeheartedly back the long list of restrictions.

''We feel street vendors and their sidewalk interruptions run contrary to the enjoyment of visitors to Chicago,'' explains Nelson Forrest, executive director of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association. ''The economic impact of the peddlers is negative but more important is the (potential) carnival atmosphere . . . the disorderly appearance that might go along with it. We don't want to suffer the problems of other major cities who have not been as strict.''

For a time this summer there was considerable confusion among some vendors on the North Side of Chicago about where they could and could not go. One element was the introduction last May of a new frozen dessert vehicle license for sellers of prepackaged ice cream and the like. Some assumed that they were no longer subject to old rules applying to peddlers.

''There weren't any ordinances telling us what we could or couldn't do as frozen food vendors,'' recalls Harvey Somach, who until recently was the Chicago distributor for Chipwich Inc., an ice cream sandwich manufacturer.

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Accordingly, Chicagoans do not see as many vendors just north of the Loop as they did earlier in the summer. But the city's prime legal vending area downtown - the State Street Mall - has more sidewalk sales activity these days than ever. The Chicago Department of Consumer Services says that the number of those licensed to vend along State Street has more than quintupled since last summer. Still, the variation is hardly Manhattan style. Vendors here sell popcorn, soft drinks, flowers, cookies, fruit, and prepackaged ice cream. There are no manufactured goods and no meat products such as hot dogs or pizza.

Although some corners of State Street are clearly more choice than others, vendors in the interests of fairness change their location every month according to a city-assigned rotation plan. Most of them say it works well and that they are given little or no trouble by police.

Most of the hawkers are college or high school students who will soon head back to school. They say they like this kind of selling not only because it helps defray school expenses but because it is outdoors, gives them easy social contact with passers-by, and allows them to be more creative and independent than a store sales job.

''I love it,'' says Ball State University sophomore James Edward Kampf as he spray cleans the windows of his popcorn wagon. ''I'm an actor and I often imitate different accents as I sell. People have told me I'm a good salesman, but I tell them that it's just that I know how to act like one.''

One block north a young woman who owns another popcorn wagon insists it is the aroma - strongest in 65- to 70-degree F. temperatures - which sells her product. ''It's too windy and cold today,'' she says, looking upward at overcast skies. Still, she says she relishes the outdoor work after a job for 10 years in an office without windows. And she loves the human contact. ''I get asked about everything - someone even asked me where Niagara Falls is.''

Just as these mall vendors seem satisfied with Chicago's strict vending laws, so some such as Harvey Somach who have had less pleasant run-ins with city rules seem to appreciate what the city is trying to do.

''The regulations don't seem 100 percent fair but the city is probably doing what it believes is right,'' he says. ''The 'powers that be' in City Hall don't want shabbily-dressed vendors with handwritten signs. They want class. . . . And Chicago isn't going to be another New York. It's different and better.''

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