While walking with a friend in Los Angeles’ rapidly changing Arts District, a VW Kombi waxed to a high shine with brilliant chrome accents and a clothing rack protruding from the back catches my eye. My friend explains that it’s the latest entrepreneurial trend: people making and selling clothes, crafts or food at "pop-up" boutiques. Just a few feet away, there’s a woman selling fresh fruit out of a shiny metal cart. I point to the fruit vendor and half-jokingly say to my friend, “look, a trendsetter.”
But, the appropriation of a long-standing cultural economy is no joke, and neither is the inequitable criminalization of one vendor over the other. One is seen as innovative while the other has been historically stigmatized. One gets a five-star review on Yelp while the other gets handed a citation or equipment confiscated. Trend-setting entrepreneurs versus “illegal” street vendors is a confusing dichotomy that has become the center of many conversations in a city that is rapidly expanding and in a country with rapidly shifting racial perspectives.
What is seen as an innovative entrepreneurial spirit and what is seen as a criminal nuisance has shed light on a different side of racism and classism in Los Angeles. “Is the White Boy Tacos in downtown getting busted? Are the brick and mortar business accepting him?” asks Rudy Espinoza, the Executive Director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, one of 65 organizations and over 400 brick and mortar businesses that are part of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign coalition. “He’s being lauded as an innovator, cutting costs and adding to the community. We’re not giving credit where credit is due…. In this time, in this country, we need to reflect on how race and class prejudices influence policy making. It’s not to say White Boy Tacos can’t do his thing, but if Juanita wants to do it, she can do it too. We can’t treat her different. There has to be an unbiased reason behind the decisions,” Rudy says.
For the past three years, the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign has been organizing street vendors throughout Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to develop and advocate for the legalization of street vending in Los Angeles. As it stands, Los Angeles is the only major city in the nation that has yet to legalize street vending or provide avenues for individuals seeking to legalize their mobile micro-businesses. Despite street vending being a pertinent and long-studied issue in Los Angeles, the legislative agenda item had been tied up in each of its three previous committee hearings, calling for more research and its tabling.
However, on December 12th 2016, the Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee, chaired by Councilmember Joe Buscaino, made a move to pick-up the long-stalled issue and approved a policy framework to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. The framework which will be going before City Council in January of 2017, calls for the decriminalization of street vendors and proposes a permitting system that would allow vendors to operate within city boundaries as well as an amendment, proposed by Councilmember David Ryu, calling for amnesty for vendors who have been previously charged with violations.
Addressing the street vendor issue in council chambers, fueled by the need to address racial and immigration issues affecting the city, came as a relief to the hundreds of organizers, vendors and supporters who felt frustrated by the city leaders’ presumed ambivalence to the issue. Espinoza, who has been a part of the campaign from the beginning explains, “There was no political will to move this because it’s a complicated issue. I think a lot of the City Council didn’t prioritize this because there was some [other issue] that was in the way.”
“[Now] the tables have turned,” he adds, “we have to step up to the plate. The presidential election spurred some new thinking around the issues affecting the city.” Without a doubt, Trump’s looming promises of deporting undocumented residents is driving fear into communities of color and immigrant families who make up the majority of the city’s street vendors. The changing political climate has lit a fire under some elected officials who now have no choice but to look at broken systems that put the most marginalized, yet high-contributing members of their community at-risk: working-class families of color.
Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Curren Price Jr. open their policy letter to City Council stating, “Despite the undeniable division and polarization that exists in our country right now, there is one common characteristic that is shared by Americans of every gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status and political party: our entrepreneurial spirit.” The recognition of street vendors as entrepreneurs is an important one. According to the 2015 Economic Roundtable study, street vendors contribute an undulating $504 million to the local economy.
Should the President-elect commit to his platform on immigration, the economic impact on the city could be devastating. Both documented and undocumented street vendors are not only a contributing part to the Los Angeles economy as brick and mortar businesses, but they have also been found to be complimentary to the prosperity of surrounding small businesses.
Street Vending in the Piñata District in Los Angeles
The study goes on to state: “Retail stores and restaurants operating in geographic proximity to street vendors (who typically sold different products than the businesses they were near) enjoyed firm expansion and job growth. In our three case study locations – Boyle Heights, Downtown, and Hollywood – we found that brick and mortar businesses were more likely to experience job growth when street vendors were operating nearby.” Conversely, brick and mortar businesses can, and have experienced financial downturn when the symbiotic relationship with existing street vendors is disrupted. A national immigration policy that would make generalized sweeps of individuals involved in ‘criminal’ activities, such as handing you a carne asada taco, would certainly be disruptive.
Under Los Angeles’ current Municipal Code (42.00(b)) street vendors run the risk of being fined up to $1,000 and/or a misdemeanor charge with up to 6 months in jail. So while Angelenos’ marijuana distributors have increasing legal protections, their hot dog vendors do not.
The Councilmembers’ proposed framework for legalizing street vending is not without its critiques. Currently, the proposed policy would: limit vendors to two per block, limit operation hours between 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., establish special vending districts, which could restrict vendors from selling in certain council districts, and require them to obtain permission from neighboring brick and mortar businesses. In a city where creative and sustainable solutions are needed to address socioeconomic problems intensified by the ballooning cost of living, the proposed framework creates a pathway for legalization but is not a comprehensive policy.
In addition to their economic contributions, street vendors are a large part of the city’s cultural capital that create alternative pathways to addressing issues such as food deserts, unemployment and homelessness.
“For decades, street vendors like me have created commerce, food and culture in public spaces that have been overlooked by the city” stated Merced Sanchez, a vendor who operates out of downtown Los Angeles’ Piñata District, during the campaign’s pre-hearing press conference. “Approximately 20,000 vendors bring life to our streets, offering fresh fruits and various merchandise to communities with few supermarkets” she adds.
Ruby, a young street vendor who sells aprons made in her family’s seamstress shop, points out that street vendors have a long history of attracting a steady tourism economy to Los Angeles’ downtown districts. “It’s important that the … number of vendors per block is flexible. In the area where I vend, the Piñata District, tourists go there because they know there are a lot of vendors on that block.” She adds, “regulating vendors to only 2 vendors per block…would completely destroy the economy of the neighborhood. A good proposal would take into account … the economic hubs that have been successful because of street vending.”
Many of the increasingly popular “open air markets” and pop-up food carts have recently been credited with creating a cultural renaissance in Los Angeles. Smorgasburg, an open air market in downtown Los Angeles, markets itself as “transforming the vast (Alameda Produce Market) site into a new node in Downtown L.A.’s burgeoning scene, and a unique destination for the region.” However, for decades, just a few blocks away in the Piñata District, vendors have filled the sidewalks with colorful merchandise and sold multicultural foods.
Similarly, White Boy Tacos, who sets up his ‘gourmet’ tacos in downtown Los Angeles, is praised for his contribution to providing tacos to the local homeless community. Yet Merced Sanchez, like many other vendors, has long hired homeless residents to help her set up, break down and keep the flow of foot traffic going.
Citing a need for policy that balances opportunity, fairness, safety and accessibility for vendors, the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign continues to push for a comprehensive policy which would include flexibility in the number and locations where vendors can set up shop, allowing for more than two vendors per block. Additionally, the campaign is seeking to incorporate incentives for vendors who sell healthy food items and technical assistance so that vendors have equitable access to the permit process. In the face of a new national political climate, the new year will challenge Los Angeles City leaders to address the systems that they, themselves, have identified as broken, and that would allow for the city’s working class families to continue to provide Los Angeles with the rich culture and eclectic economy it has internationally been recognized for.
Credit where credit is due, as Espinoza said.
Preview Photo: Feng Yuan
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