Contesting the City

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In cities across the globe, street vendors and local officials are engaged in distinct forms of antagonism, tolerance, and collusion, with vendors sometimes protected by local officials and sometimes removed from public space. While these contentious relationships between city authorities and street vendors leave vendors in a vulnerable position, this article argues that vendors are not passive or helpless in the face of urban authorities. In order to demonstrate how street vendors are able to contest city policy and practices, this research draws on theories of urban informality and resistance which are largely predicated on scholarship of the Global South, and applies these theories in a comparative analysis of distinct cities with significant unauthorized vending populations: Chicago and Mumbai. By comparing different cities, the objective is to create a broader understanding of resistance efforts and urban informality that is sensitive to local contexts but not bound by geographical distinctions. To this end, a spectrum of contestation acts are identified, from the physical occupation of space to the formal use of urban institutions like the court system, which can help explain the local and proximate patterns of street vending and removal enforcement. This argument is drawn from research in three neighborhoods in Chicago and three in Mumbai from 2011 to 2015. The analysis presented here shows how different resistance methods can have specific outcomes, ranging from formal policy changes to unofficial acceptance or toleration of vending activities, and how city rules can be negotiated from below.