Thursday, May 23, 2013
You probably won't see a duct tape wallet on display in an art museum, or a stuffed starfish – even one wearing a tiny bathing suit. But vendors selling these and other handcrafted items on Portland's streets during cruise ship season are able to do so because they fall under the First Amendment protection of freedom of expression. This is causing a critical response from owners of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, who resent the competition that shows up only when there is a boatload of tourists on the streets.
Vendors catering to cruise ship passengers set up along Commercial Street in Portland on Saturday. They add color and street life that tourists enjoy.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
It's easy to understand why business owners don't like it. They pay rent or taxes all year long, only to see fair-weather competitors pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. But the city is right to look for ways to keep everyone open for business.
Everyone, even the gift shop owners who watch their potential customers walk a gantlet of outdoor vendors, benefits from Portland being a fun place for tourists to be. Like food carts and musicians, arts and crafts stands add color and street life that tourists enjoy whether they buy anything at the stands or not.
The city has no right to shut down the vendors, but it has no reason to, either.
Which is not to say that the city should allow any vendor to open up shop anywhere or at any time. Measuring the sidewalks makes sure that no one obstructs the pedestrian traffic, or gets in the way of entrances to stores.
Not every sidewalk in the city has enough room for both a craft table and a clear walkway. It is not a violation of any vendor's right of expression for the city to designate areas where vendors can set up safely and put other streets off limits.
And businesses get a little protection from the city's permitting only craft stands and not those selling other mass-produced items. Stores that sell T-shirts and lobster-claw beer openers don't face any real competition.
Ultimately, these are the kinds of businesses that should be able to co-exist. Some people are going to sit down in a restaurant and order a five-course meal, while others just want to eat a hot dog on a park bench. One does not eclipse the other.
The city's Street Artists Task Force should be able to set standards that help all kinds of businesses.