Los Angeles finally lifts its ban on street vending
Officials have estimated that there are 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles, and selling on the city’s sidewalks is often the first profession for newly arrived immigrants. On the streets, many have faced crackdowns by police and immigration agents. The legalization of street vending, for them, means dignity and security.
In recent weeks, I explored the city’s neighborhoods and spoke to vendors about their livelihoods and a changing LA. In the evenings, vendors at the Guatemalan food market at Bonnie Brae and Sixth streets, near MacArthur Park, serve up grilled meats, stews and potato tamales.
“This isn’t your country, go home,” is what Ofelia Ruiz, a vendor at MacArthur Park, said she heard countless times from police. Another vendor there, Jose Ugalde, recalled: “It was a lot of years of fighting, of suffering. A lot of criminalization.”
The history of street vending in LA has always been tied up with issues of race and class, as well as debates about how public spaces are used in a city that revolves around the automobile.
“It became a place that consciously tried to be different from the East Coast, where streets were more raucous,” said Gregg Kettles, a lawyer who studied the issue in the 1990s.
LA had been debating legalization for years. But it was not until former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last year decriminalizing street vending across the state that the City Council voted in November to legalize it.
Myra Hernandez became a vendor after her husband lost his job, and she needed to support her three children. She worried that she would be deported. “It was my biggest fear,” she said.
For decades in LA, crackdowns on vendors happened in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, where richer, often white, residents moved in, displacing immigrant communities.
“You can’t really disentangle this from debates about gentrification and displacement pressures,” said Doug Smith, legal counsel to a coalition of groups that pushed for legalization.
Caridad Vasquez arrived in LA a quarter-century ago. Like America today, California then was cracking down on immigration. Vasquez began selling Mexican food on the streets of Boyle Heights in 2006. Tacos, pozole, mulitas, quesadillas – all old family recipes. “The only people who acknowledged us were the people who wanted to eat the food of their country, which I could provide,” she said. “That is what is satisfying to me, as a Latino.”
After a police crackdown in 2008, Vasquez became an activist pushing for legalization. There was little progress until Donald Trump became president, she said. “When Trump came, the vendors were worried that he was going to take us away from our communities because we are undocumented,” Vasquez said.
For her, legalization is an acknowledgment of the contributions of immigrants to the life of LA. “Our city is Latino and we bring our cultures with us from other countries,” she said.