Elizabeth Willis and the Curious Case of the New York Newsstand

Elizabeth Willis at her newsstand on the corner of 50th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.  Eagle  photo by Victoria Merlino

Elizabeth Willis at her newsstand on the corner of 50th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Eagle photo by Victoria Merlino

By Victoria Merlino

Newsstands line the daily routes taken by the average New Yorker, always there in case you need to grab a quick candy bar or a magazine to read on your commute home.

The city’s 346 newsstands stretch from Jamaica to Times Square to Brighton Beach and back again, all curiously uniform, down to the JCDecaux logo emblazoned on their sides. But the sleek design embodies a decades-long effort to modernize New York City and tends to obscure the people left behind.

To understand the current state of affairs, start by asking the newsstand owners themselves.

Few New Yorkers have been in the newsstand game as long as Elizabeth Willis, who has operated her newsstand at the corner of Manhattan’s 50th Street and Seventh Avenue for more than 50 years, hawking candy bars and magazines amid the Midtown bustle.

Willis has many loyal customers and she says she is one of the only black women operating a newsstand in all of New York City. A recent customer seemed to back up that assertion.

“I have never seen a black person [working] at the [stand],” a customer shouted to Willis while an Eagle reporter interviewed her at her stand.

“If I were to lose this [stand] I probably wouldn’t live two or three months after this,” Willis said to the Eagle. If she died, she added, she would come back to haunt the stand in the afterlife.

“This stuff is like my home,” she said. “It’s my life.”

Despite her passion for her work, things became muddled for Willis in 2003, when the City Council passed a law to take ownership of individual newsstands away from operators and put all stands in the hands of a single franchise. The measure, endorsed by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, enabled a franchise to replace all of the stands and maintain them at the company’s own expense in order to regulate the look of the streetscape.

Before the measure passed, operators paid to put up their own stands, and many were a hodgepodge of different colors, styles, parts and utilities.

In return for maintaining newsstand uniformity and upkeep, the franchise that won the contract to renovate the newsstands would receive revenue from advertisements erected on the sides of the stands. The city would receive a piece of the profits, but the stand operators were cut out of the advertising deal. Instead, they made money from the items they sell.

That was not the first time the city government had contemplated standardizing the stands. In 1997, the city passed a similar law, but it was repealed a year later.

The New York City Newsstand Operators Association sued to try and block the 2003 law, arguing that the law seized newsstands without just compensation to the owners, but the New York Supreme Court ruled against the newsstand trade group.

Willis said her stand was renovated in 2008 by Cemusa — the company that eventually won the contract with the city to erect and own the newsstands in additing to replacing bus shelters and public toilets.

Questions quickly arose about Cemusa’s ability to deliver on the $1 billion deal. A lawsuit filed by the contract’s losing bidders claimed the city unfairly favored Cemusa in the bidding process and that it was “an inexperienced undercapitalized foreign company,” according to court documents. In 2015, Cemusa was eventually bought out by one of the losing bidders — the street furniture giant JCDecaux. Street furniture is the term used for sidewalk structures like newsstands and bus shelters.

“Prior to the Cemusa (now JCDecaux) franchise agreement, newsstand operators owned their stands. In accordance with Local Law 64 of 2003, existing newsstand operators were provided with new, high quality newsstands at no cost,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson told the Eagle. Existing operators were free to remove their stands to make way for the replacement stands. New operators pay a fee to the franchisee to construct and install new newsstands, which is also pursuant to LL 64.”

Some stand operators told the The New York Times in 2008 that Cemusa was slow to build the stands and said that faulty locks and leaking roofs remained problems. For her part, Willis does not like the design of the stand, and prefers her old one.

“I did not ask for this piece of garbage,” Willis said.

After the 2008 renovation, she said, she started receiving multiple violations from the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which inspects newsstands, for business practices that she says she had been doing without a problem before the renovation.

DCA provides a plain-language checklist for operators to better understand rules they must follow. In recent violations from June and July, she was found to be selling hats, which is not allowed, altering the newsstand by affixing lights and an ATM machine to it and selling unauthorized items for over $10, which is also not allowed. Willis also sells her own advertisement space on the door of her stand independent of JCDecaux.

“Unfortunately, Ms. Willis continues to violate the law that DCA enforces. Over the years, DCA has received a number of complaints about unauthorized advertising on Ms. Willis’ newsstand,” a spokesperson from the DCA said in an email to the Eagle. The spokesperson said Willis had received five violations since 2014 for unauthorized advertising.

A spokesman for JCDecaux also confirmed Willis had violated her license by selling unauthorized ads.

Willis maintains, however, that she never signed documents releasing the stand to the city and was never compensated for it.

“I never had no problem until they put the [new] stand up here,” Willis said, in reference to the violations she has received. “Stuff that I've been doing for the last 30 years. Never no complaint.”

Even with newsstands’ current limitations, applications for new ones have hovered between 50 and 60 each year since 2015. Though newspaper and magazine sales have declined, the number of applications has remained steady as the stands depend more on revenue from candy, snack and beverage sales.

Despite facing fines, Willis said she hopes to continue operating the stand for years to come.

“This means a lot to me,” she said. “This is my second home.”