Beyond Hot Dogs and Pretzels

This is my dream review for my thesis. It would be posted in The New York Times:

Meet Adam, an Egyptian grey-haired man with a friendly face and low and tranquilizing voice. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Nut in the same house since they arrived in NYC more than 25 years ago. Adam is a street vendor in Greenwich Village. He has been selling bagels and coffee to NYU students for the past 15 years at the corner of Broadway and Waverly Place.

As I am listening to Adam himself telling this story I am also taking a virtual tour at the corner he works every day. A digital 3D model of him stands next to his digital food cart. It is not the first time I visit this corner in New York (well, maybe in the virtual world), and I might have even bought coffee from Adam a few years ago, but I must say this is the first time I really notice the man himself. Once he finishes talking, I leave his small world wanting him to tell me more of his stories.

Adam is one of the ten food vendors portrayed in Michelle Hessel’s piece “Sidewalk Stories”. In her work, the artist has created digital portraits of street vendors using a mix of digital emerging technologies such as photogrammetry and 360 photos. Now, why did she choose this subject?

“From pretzels and hot dogs to tacos and tamales, New Yorkers and tourists love street food. But the people who make a living cooking and selling these foods remain largely unknown.” – she says.

“I wanted to tell the incredible stories from the sidewalk workers. To make people see the human being beyond the hot dog and pretzel guy and to understand how important he is to this city.”, Michelle says.

360 photos taken at the exact location where each vendor works, are used to create snow globe-like bubble worlds that you can enter as a viewer. Adam’s world is one of these. In another bubble stands Heleodora Vivar’s, a street vendor from Washington Heights. When you enter her domain, an audio track of her voice is triggered and she starts telling her story. “For me, it is better to have my Tamales cart. Because what I make, I make it for me. And I am not making a profit.” – she says.

As I explore the piece, going from vendor to vendor, I am more and more delighted. The portraits are delicate and human. Listening and really seeing with other eyes people who are part of our daily lives but that we have never taken a moment to think about is absolutely fantastic. The more vendor’s stories I hear, the more they connect to each other and contribute to creating a bigger picture around this complicated and unknown universe.

Michelle also touches an important topic, especially nowadays with the recent governmental policies on immigration. The fact that 90% of the vendors are immigrants means something. It means not only that our tacos and tamales are guaranteed to be delicious, but also that this system is completely dependent on people who were not born in the U.S.A.

“We are immigrants…We are doing an honest job and an honest job is a right every human being should have.” – says Heleodora Vivar.

Michelle is touching a topic that has been neglected by most throughout the years. Her piece is relevant and successful in bringing our attention to those who are left in the background of society. Sidewalk Stories made me understand vendors as an important piece of NYC complex puzzle and as a cultural pillar of this city. But most of all, this is a piece about empathy and human connection, and in that point, she will hit you in the right spot.

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