One of the strongest pillars of Los Angeles’s retail landscape isn’t a mom-and-pop storefront or a strip mall; in fact, it doesn’t even have a fixed address.
The city is peppered with about 50,000 mobile food vendors, Old World startups on wheels, catering to high- and low-brow tastes ranging from grandma’s tamales to fresh tropical fruits to rolling shaved ice pops. But this vital layer of the urban foodie firmament has long operated essentially outside the law. And now controversy is swirling over a proposal to provide a formal permitting scheme to legalize their “microbusinesses.”
Despite the fact that street hawkers have been plying their trade on the curb since long before many famed Downtown LA retailers set up shop, the city government often treats vendors as common criminals simply because they lack formal licenses.
The East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) has been pushing city lawmakers to set up a licensing program to offer vendors renewable permits (with fees ranging around $250), so they can operate in compliance with safety and commercial regulations, while supporting a classic cultural asset. But the debate is less about regulations than about the struggle for public space in a rapidly gentrifying city. Much of the opposition comes from the business community that supports the quasi-privatization of public space through Business Improvement Districts, which allow private corporations to subsidize localized municipal services (to spruce up, say, a select row of hipster boutiques). Larger retailers and developers see these sidewalk vendors—largely poor, immigrant or people of color—as a blight on their upscale commercial fiefdoms.
ELACC says many local vendors have been slapped with stiff fines, harassed, even threatened with deportation, or had their equipment seized—and patterns of overpolicing seem to follow insidious socioeconomic shifts.
“We see harassment of street vendors as a direct form of displacement,” especially in working-class areas “where gentrification has totally strangled that neighborhood,” says ELACC’s Director of Organizing’s Mike Dennis. Landlords evict poor folks, police push out peddlers: “we have an 85 year-old member who is a fruit vendor; she has been arrested eight times in the last year for the same thing…. how are we treating our society when we’re criminalizing folks like that?”