Hot dog wars broiled all summer in the Roosevelt Island Tram Plaza, thanks to poor judgment and absenteeism in RIOC’s management ranks. Because the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation is deeply bunkered, blocking public engagement, knowing who the genius was who decided to jam a hot dog cart into an area reduced by construction isn’t possible. But it’s easy to point out who failed, hurting both an innocent vendor and Roosevelt Island’s most active volunteer. Line up the usual suspects.
by David Stone
Before the Hot Dog Wars
Way back in 2007, the Roosevelt Island Historical Society figured out how to get the MTA to turn over the shell of a historic toll collection booth. Working closely with RIOC, RIHS president Judith Berdy got the artifact installed in the Island’s Tram Plaza.
It has served both as a visitor center and a gift shop. Also, RIHS filled needs with free maps and answered the endless stream of “Where are the bathrooms?”
But it was the unique community’s roots within a great metropolis that got the most local attention.
Local history matters because it’s a big part of what makes Roosevelt Island special. It explains how we got here and who we are today. RIHS excels with the context.
Then Came the Summer of 2022
Berdy expected a difficult summer because RIOC scheduled extensive Tram maintenance work, beginning in May. In normal times, impactful work like this got done outside the high season for tourists, but these are not normal times with RIOC.
Bumbling along largely without leadership, the state agency allowed work to begin during a weekday evening rush hour. No PSD officers were present as a grumpy, heedless equipment operator rolled his heavy equipment through a busy plaza. The work crew was also absent flagmen as the operator nearly pinned a pair of customers against an unprepared hot dog vendor’s stand.
Around 80% of the Roosevelt Island Tram Plaza was lost behind chained fencing. New foot traffic patterns led riders the long way around the plaza.
But the Historical Society’s visitor kiosk faced two additional immediate problems. First and most frightening, RIOC’s contractor perched a large crane-like piece of equipment directly overhead, forcing an immediate closing. Similar construction elsewhere requires sheds built for protecting people underneath.
Not on Roosevelt Island, though. Not under RIOC’s management.
The second problem, which already existed, suddenly got worse.
After other structures, like a bus shelter, were removed, the hot dog vendor parked his cart in what little space remained in front of the Historical Society’s entrance.
The New York Post Gets Wind
The hot dog wars continued into August while RIOC’s bunkered, $216K President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes ignored phone calls and emails. The absentee landlord’s evasions puzzled because, after thoughtlessly creating the conflict, his agency could easily fix it.
“He has parked himself right at our doorway,” Berdy told the New York Post. “He could not be closer without being inside the visitor’s center property.”
The Historical Society is a nonprofit group that depends on the kiosk’s revenue from themed gift items, donations and cold beverages. They already suffered a big hit on income from the construction.
But you could hardly blame Mohamed Afifi, the hot dog cart vendor, either. It’s his livelihood, and he paid for a permit from RIOC.
All the state agency that never gets it wrong had to do was find another location. Near the subway where the traffic’s much higher? Across the street where the lobster truck finds good business?
The conflict is as unnecessary as it is embarrassing for the community. And while both Berdy and Afifi made their cases, one sentence from the Post article stands out.
“The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation did not return The Post’s request for comment.”
Nor did they answer emails from residents or return telephone calls. The lack of leadership at RIOC astounds as much as Governor Kathy Hochul’s nearly yearlong refusal to act in support of residents and businesses.
Albany plays politics in an election year, sheltering Roosevelt Island’s notorious patronage dump while everyone else pays the price.