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A hot dog cart on every street corner!

Library of Congress
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 2/14/2010


--"If you want to see a place with activity, put out food. In New York, at every plaza or set of steps with a lively social life, you will almost invariably find a food vendor at the corner and a knot of people around him--eating, schmoozing, or just standing."--William H. Whyte, "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces."

The quote appeared on the title page of a presentation given to Roanoke City Council discussing an ordinance to allow street cart vendors.

I like street cart food. I'll eat just about anything off the street, especially the good stuff, the stuff I rarely toss in the grocery cart. Hot dogs, sausages, big salty pretzels, ice-cream sandwiches. I love the stuff.

It's not just the taste, though I have been known to wax at length over the proper, perfect combination of ingredients to top a dog. (The Yankee in me must caution that Southerners, while perfecting many foods, have got one thing really wrong. Slaw is not a substitute for sauerkraut.)

No, my admiration of street food goes beyond taste. It's the smell of onions sizzling, the surprise of espying a snow-cone cart during an afternoon of sightseeing in the hot sun, the quickly exchanged conversations with vendors, the sensation of slurping the dripping sides of an ice-cream sandwich while strolling to the next destination.

Street vendors, as Roanoke Councilman Dave Trinkle puts it, "add an extra vibe." Trinkle and his colleagues are looking to bring that missing vibe to Roanoke by enacting an ordinance that would allow street cart vendors in most commercial and recreation districts. They could set up on most downtown sidewalks, parks, plazas, even at Mill Mountain Star, with one huge exception--the City Market area.

Currently, Roanoke banishes street carts to private property in business zones, which are mostly far from the foot traffic needed to sustain the venture.

There's a reason for this; it's the same reason the council's plan might unravel. Many restaurant owners aren't as receptive as Trinkle is to the idea. They worry that vendors, with very little overhead, would have an unfair competitive edge. Somehow I doubt that a diner heading for 202 Market would be sidelined by a Polish sausage or an Italian ice, but a hot dog cart parked in front of the Weiner Stand very well could snatch customers.

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