Lots of ‘Grey Area’ In Street Vending Issue

Reactions to illegal street vending in Boyle Heights may seem black and white, but there is a lot more to it, study finds.

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

A recent study conducted by graduate students at the University of Southern California, indicates that despite passionate outcries in support of or against illegal street vending in Boyle Heights, street vendors in the area have thrived in part due to the compassion and complicity of legally permitted businesses as well as residents.

There is a lot of neighborhood sentiment that falls in the grey area, according to Rudy Espinoza, treasurer of the Los Angeles Urban Renewal Network (LURN) and consultant for Emerging Market.

The study, “Street Vending in Boyle Heights: Opportunities and Challenges” completed in May by USC School of Policy, Planning and Development graduate students Josefina Campos, Jasmine Kim and Lauren Yokomizo, was conducted on behalf of LURN. Their report aims to formulate recommendations to address the impacts of street vending in Boyle Heights and provide feasible, sustainable solutions.

The livelihoods of street vendors have elicit both compassion and anger. EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo

“One of the things that we’ve learned is that it’s a lot more complicated, there’s a lot of grey. Go deep into the neighborhood and talk to people, it’s a whole other story,” Espinoza said during a May 18 interview.

On May 13, EGP published “We Were Treated Like Common Criminals,” an article on the experience of two street vendors who were arrested during an on-going crack down on illegal vendors in the area. The following day, Monica Harmon, Hollenbeck Community Action Team member, was so outraged about the street vendors’ complaints that she posted a message on EGPNews.com and sent emails to her contacts telling them to send in letters or post messages if they had a problem with street vendors.

“Illegal vendors have hurt the legal businesses in Boyle Heights. They have saturated the community with blight. Thanks to Hollenbeck police officers for cleaning up the influx of illegal vendors on Breed St. and Cesar Chavez,” Harmon commented online. “Supervisor [Gloria] Molina has done a great job in not tolerating illegal vending… I thank LAPD Hollenbeck for doing their best in cleaning up a huge issue,” she said.

Last week EGP published, “To Street Vendors: ‘Obey the Laws,’” a follow-up story focusing on businesses and stakeholders who don’t sympathize with the street vendors, and see their presence as more of a nuisance than innocent people just trying to make a living or offering a service. This time around, readers’ responses to the article mostly defended the vendors and were against business owners who say they face unfair competition.

“Yes, it reminds me of Mexico but it also reminds me of Europe where it is possible to buy falafel, crepes and other snack foods easily from street carts in plazas and on city streets,” wrote Chimatli Tellez, who identified herself as a fourth generation Angeleno and resident of Lincoln Heights. “It’s a global thing, not a third world thing.”

Food is really the big issue. The percentage of illegal street vendors selling food dwarfs the number of vendors selling other items. Graph from study by USC School of Policy, Planning and Development, Josefina Campos, Jasmine Kim and Lauren Yokomizo, May 2010 on behalf of LURN.

 

Tellez, who posted the message on EGP’s website on June 5, said it is unfair for a brick-and-mortar restaurant to blame the street vendors for their own shortcomings, like lack of food selection.

In 2009, researchers and LURN members took to the streets of Boyle Heights to conduct surveys and interviews on the issue. What they found was that the street vending issue is not as clear as day and night, or black and white.

One example of the complicated relationship of street vendors in the area was discovered when researchers questioned the appearance of tables set up on the sidewalk in front of an apparel store. It looked as if the business owner had placed the products outside to entice customers to come-in, but the researchers found the tables really belonged to vendors who had rented space to sell their wares.

“Stores are actually selling sidewalk space. So that woman selling socks said ‘I pay $800 a month to the store owner to have my table here,’ and the guy next to her was paying $800 and the table behind that table pays $400. So the storeowner was probably paying the rent off these people,” Espinoza said.

The collaboration or complicity is something residents suspected.

According to Juaquin Castellaños, homeowner and Boyle Heights Neighbors Association member, some local businesses (that do not sell food), rent sidewalk space in front of their businesses, without any acknowledgement from the city, allowing the informal economy to continue.

“So yeah, some of those businesses do rent their spaces but those businesses that are ‘subleasing,’ there is no record of them, so it is very difficult for the police or city attorney to go against them,” Castellaños told EGP.

The study by Campos, Kim and Yokomizo, included 25 surveys collected from pedestrians/residents, 22 surveys from street vendors and 17 surveys from licensed businesses with a physical address.

The researchers found that while traditional brick-and-mortar businesses were primarily concerned about the unfair competition created by street vendors selling a similar product, only 18 percent of the businesses said they had filed a complaint against the street vendors.

Eighty-two percent of the business owners surveyed said they had restrained from complaining to the authorities out of compassion for the vendors.

“However, upon further discussion with business owners it was later discovered that the majority of those who had not filed a complaint had considered filing, but opted not to because they recognized street vending as an important source of income for vendors,” the study states. “Overall, this report has found that the businesses would prefer not to have street vendors situated within close proximity to their stores, while a mutual understanding exists in recognizing the importance of vending for vendors. As a result, the majority of these businesses agreed to take part in a process that would effectively address the issue of street vending in Boyle Heights.”

Through the surveys, researchers found that besides businesses, pedestrians (customer and non-customers) acknowledged that vendors sell to provide for their households, and as a possible solution suggested employment opportunities should be offered to street vendors.

Likewise, a portion of street vendors said unemployment had brought them to vending on the streets. Immigration status was not questioned in the survey in order to encourage participation, but researchers noted that undocumented immigration status could be a factor contributing to their unemployment in the formal economy.

Of the street vendors surveyed, 73 percent said they sold food and 55 percent reported good interactions with indoor businesses or other vendors.

Teresa Perez and Alberta Perez Luna, who were arrested for selling food at the intersection of Soto and Cesar Chavez on April 30, said they tried to respect local businesses while trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The women said they showed up at the crack of dawn and were usually gone before the surrounding businesses even opened.

Still, the research seems to validate claims of harm on a larger scale. Twenty percent of those interviewed said they distrusted the sanitation of food sold on the streets, and some stakeholders told researchers that gang members charged rent or they were fearful that street vendors’ association with gang members could lead to dangerous situations. Other stakeholders complained that obstructed sidewalks forced people onto the street, and that open flames are hazardous to the community. Besides unfair competition, other disadvantages identified in the study include: increased traffic and pedestrian congestion, reduced property values and reduced quality of life through pollution of public spaces.

Among the advantages of street vending identified by researchers, were: affordable products and services for low-income residents, income opportunities for immigrants and lower-income residents seeking employment, and increased foot traffic that contributes to “the revitalization of the community’s street life.”

While details for a pilot Farmer’s Market for vendors are currently being addressed by Councilmember Jose Huizar’s (CD-14) staff, researchers indicate that a program to incorporate street vendors into the formal economy has already been tried in LA, and failed.

Special Sidewalk Vending District Ordinance of 1994 authorized the creation of 8 vending zones in the city, but only two pilot programs were launched—one in MacArthur Park and the other in San Pedro: both were out of business by 2005.

At its height, the MacArthur Park vending district had 33 approved street vendors and was managed by Institute for Urban Research and Development (IURD), a non-profit organization, which established Mama’s Hot Tamales Café, according to the study.

The MacArthur Park vending district failed in part because of steep permit costs, lack of stakeholder support, and lack of funding and enforcement, the study states. Ironically, enforcement to monitor legal vending and prevent competition from illegal vending was not effectively implemented.

Today, Mama’s Hot Tamales Café lives on, and owner Sandi Romero says the evening-style Farmer’s Market for vendors is a “wonderful idea.”

“We wanted to do something along those lines in MacArthur Park, a ‘Tamales Farmers Market,’” Romero told EGP in a June 4 email.

While the vending district originally gave vendors a great sense of hope and security, Romero points out several factors that led to the vending district’s demise.

“The main problem was MacArthur Park at the time was full of gangs, drugs and crime. We worked really hard to clean up the park, but we were not able to do it fast enough,” Romero said. “The ordinance also did not allow for ambulatory vending and therefore unlicensed vendors would wander into the park and continue to sell—not enough law enforcement to keep out the unlicensed vendors—so our vendors were competing with the unlicensed vendors all the time.”

Under the program, vendors were paying a hefty load, $400 to $600 every six months, she said.

On the surface, Mama’s Hot Tamales Café appears to be the only beneficiary of the program, however Romero says many vendors from the program are still doing business and she is still in touch with some of them.

Mama’s advice to organizers of the evening vendor’s market is to create boundaries for ambulatory vending, ensure enforcement, create a business plan that generates income for the program and the participants, and have a helpful and supportive advisory board.

Establishing a “Street Vendor Council,” with multiple layers of stakeholders who would coordinate key resources, provide accountability and ensure compliance—was the principal recommendation from the study’s authors. The council should have an executive board, a wide range of council members comprised of key stakeholders from across the public and private sectors and from the community.

Researchers also noted case studies in San Francisco, New York and Singapore where initiatives had been successfully implemented to formalize street vendors sales and regulate them as small businesses in their respective economies.

As of now, there is no time-line for opening the vendors’ Farmers Market, and it is unclear if the numbers of street vendors will subside as the economy slowly recovers from the recession. However, the study surveys show only slightly half of street vendors are interested in changing their practices and paying permits and taxes. Only 59 percent of street vendors surveyed a few months ago were interested in formalizing their business if provided with assistance, and only 55 percent were interested in participating in a program.

Meanwhile, street vendors may continue to circumvent the laws, as some resident stakeholders salute them for “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,” and others shun them for adding to blight in their neighborhoods.

To read Part 1 click here: ‘We Were Treated Like Common Criminals’

To read Part 2 click here: To Street Vendors: ‘Obey the Laws

This is Part 3, the last article in the series. 


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June 10, 2010  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

Comments

2 Responses to “Lots of ‘Grey Area’ In Street Vending Issue”

  1. pepe on June 16th, 2010 11:21 pm

    Some of these illegal vendors, need to be check out further. Some are fronts to drug dealing…
    Have higher fines for illegal vendors…

  2. josh on December 3rd, 2014 6:37 pm

    i heard anonymous dudes named pepe who make blog comments are actually fronts for…racists…

    let the people feed themselves.

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