New York City’s summer street fairs: A guide and suggestions

This past Saturday, I walked out of my brother’s apartment building near Stuyvesant Park in Manhattan to discover the 2nd Avenue Street Festival underway. Block after block, 2nd Avenue was closed to traffic and perfect for discovering those items I didn’t know I had to have while brushing up on my Wolof.

New York City’s street fair scene is one of the terrific pleasures of summer in Manhattan–if you’re a pedestrian. The taxi driver who took me to Port Authority where I caught my Greyhound bus trip home made a quick turn off 6th Avenue on Sunday in order to avoid a street fair up ahead. He recounted a time of going blocks out of his way in order to get where he needed to go because he was thwarted by a street fair.

Although some street fairs seem to spring up spontaneously, there is a schedule of where to find them. I just happened upon two of them because they were where I happened to be. Each of them had their own feel. Some fairs have music, some give a nod to a particular ethnic group, and some are a mish mash of a variety of influences. Here’s a guide to what to look for if you go and a brief Wolof lesson to add to the shopping pleasure.

The two festivals I happened upon were in very different neighborhoods which added to their distinctive flavor. The Stuyvesant area is a mix of gentrification, historic houses, ethnic diversity and people who have lived in the neighborhood for years. Because 2nd Avenue is a wide street, the fair had an open feel that looked like part flea market and part carnival with a festive aura of non-fussiness. People of all ages, several with kids and people with dogs milled about, enjoying the sunshine, the goods and each other’s company.

The first item to catch my attention was the large grill filled with mozzarepas, my new favorite street food. Mozzarepas are cornbread pancakes with mozzarella cheese sandwiched between. They are grilled until the cheese melts and the pancake is crispy. Mine wasn’t cheap, $5, but I shared with a friend and the $1 lemonade a block later averaged out the price.

On the lookout for earrings, I spied a booth that mostly caught my attention because of the baskets arranged in front–and the vendors selling the wares. Turns out, the couple is from Senegal and are Wolof speakers, the language I learned in the Peace Corps. Thus came a conversation that included me asking them to reduce the price of two pairs of earrings that, frankly, were already cheap-$5 a pair. Always excited to brush up on Wolof, this interlude was one of my most favorite parts of my street fair excursion.

I also bought a T-shirt, a multi-colored artsy item that looks like it would be in an upscale boutique in a small college town. I noticed a $115. 00 original price on something else. I paid $15. The brand is Windspirit, Wind Song. . . It’s Wind something, but I can’t remember exactly.

At the fair near Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as a reflection of the more upscale neighborhood, there was more of an art festival feel, although some of the items were similar to the one on 2nd Avenue. The African jewelry showed up several times at both locations. At this fair there were more booths that fit a fine arts to high end crafts category.

There was one booth at the Second Avenue fair that was one-of-a-kind. I only saw one booth total selling very cool wine bottle gift bags. They were lovely and had an Asian look about them, however they weren’t kitschy, but something you could give someone with good taste. A great way to dress up wine if you don’t want to spend a fortune, but want to look like you’ve put effort into a hostess gift. They were $10 for three. What a deal and I passed it by. Rats. I also passed up a chair massage. Too bad.

If you do come across any Wolof speakers, and I bet you will. Here’s a way to make a great impression.

Say “Nnga def?” Which means “How are you?”

The response to this is “Jama rek” which means “Peace only.”

If you think something is expensive say, “Defa ser.” (That’s expensive) “Wanil co tuti” (Reduce it a little.)

“Dee deet” means “No.” “Wow” means “yes”

“Mangee dem” means “I’m going.”

“Jeri jef” is “Thank you.”

Such words can get you far. Maybe not a reduction in price, but a good time. By the way, I spelled the words the way they sound to me. That’s partly how I learned Wolof.

Here are three sites I found that list festivals. My suggestion for deciding which one to hit is to see where you might be in New York City and use the street fair as a draw to a particular neighborhood. The great thing is that they go on all day, you don’t need to pay admission and there are not lines to tie up your time. Plus, they’re free and wonderful for people watching. Dogs, children, the elderly, and people with weight problems are more than welcome to join in the festivities.

I’m very grateful to Ed Yourdon who snapped these wonderful pictures last October at the street fair on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. I didn’t have my camera. Click through Yeardon’s street fair gallery and you’ll feel as if you’re at the fair.