How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Will the New Year bring legalization to LA street vendors? City leaders say a new plan might work this time

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Chopping fruit is how Delfino Flores always starts his day. Pineapples, mangoes, melons. He’s been a street vendor in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles for 15 years.

"Always, since I came to this country, this is what I’ve done. It’s what I learned how to do," said Flores, 32, who hails from the Mexican city of Puebla. "Being an entrepreneur is what I like. Most of us from Puebla, we like business, and it’s what we do.”

But street vending on public streets and sidewalks is illegal in Los Angeles. For decades, city officials have squabbled over how to legalize these micro-enterprises, mostly run by immigrants from Latin America, who sell everything from fruit and cornmeal pupusas, to clothing and electronic gadgets.

City officials are now weighing a plan to legalize street vending. It’s not the first time the idea has come up – but proponents say it might work this time, because the city and its economy have changed.

There are an estimated 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles, according to a city staff report. About 10,000 sell food; the rest sell non-food items. They keep at it, in spite of confusing rules and the constant threat of run-ins with police.

“They’ve arrested me three times, that I remember," Flores told KPCC. "They’ve thrown out my fruit – having a permit! Even with a permit, they’ve thrown it away twice. And carts? I’ve lost lots of carts. Here in Highland Park, they’ve confiscated about 10 carts.”

Food vendors like Flores can obtain county health permits and prepare their products in a licensed commissary. But they’re not allowed to sell on the street. Even those with health permits can only legally sell at approved events and on private property 

A new proposal, backed by City Council members Jose Huizar and Curren Price, would overturn the ban on street vending, and make the practice legal citywide.

“The idea is that people will apply for a permit," Huizar said, "and the permit itself and any fees that go toward paying that permit, will be used to fund enforcement.”

There was an effort in the 1990's to create street vending districts in several parts of town, but it fell short - ultimately leading in 1999 to a zone allowing a small number of permitted vendors in MacArthur Park. But that also flopped – in part, Huizar says, because there were many more unregulated vendors plying their wares right down the street.

“People are saying, why do I follow these rules, and stay put in this geographic area, when those people are not following the same rules and going wherever they want?" he said. "That is not going to work.”

One thing that’s different this time, Huizar said, is changing attitudes about street food, coupled with a changing economy. With a wide array of roaming food trucks and growing foodie culture, Los Angeles has become known as a street food capital. As Huizar sees it, this is all part of a larger economic movement - one that favors independent, do-it-yourself merchants.

“Street food vending fits into that category, whether it’s emerging Lyft and Uber in transportation, or street vending," Huizar said. "The economy, and how people are buying their products and getting their services, is changing a bit. And so street food vending fits into the new shared economy.”

But there’s still hearty opposition to street vendors in L.A. Downtown revitalization consultant Hal Bastian was among those who lined up to voice objection at a recent City Hall hearing on street vending. He said it would be impossible to police even permitted vendors.

“The city of Los Angeles has no enforcement capacity whatsoever," Bastian said. "It is currently illegal to street vend in the city of Los Angles. Street vending occurs all over the city of Los Angeles and we don’t enforce the current law - which is no street vending.”

Some of the strongest opposition has come from downtown, where rapid development has drawn a mix of odd bedfellows: Wealthier residents who flock to new eateries and nightlife – merchants who are eager to cash in on the boom – and a growing number of street vendors, who are eager to do the same.

Some smaller, brick-and-mortar merchants fear they’ll face even stiffer competition from street vendors if the practice is legalized. Norma Abdou owns The Alley Dog, a small Santee Alley eatery that sells bacon-wrapped hot dogs – just like many street vendors do just outside, but minus the overhead. The restaurant even has its own, branded hot dog cart outside,.

“It’s going to be worse if they legalize them, because now they have a license to stand in front of my door," Abdou said. "Who is going to regulate them the way I get regulated?”

Under the new legalization proposal, it’s still not clear how much street vending permits would cost, or how much funding those permits would generated for policing. Part of the enforcement plan being proposed involves directing police to address the gang extortion that plagues many street vendors, allowing them to operate more safely. A city economic development committee recently kicked a blueprint of the proposal back to staff for revisions, with more details to come.

But along with the costs of enforcement, legalization could have a positive economic impact. The Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, a research nonprofit, recently calculated that legalizing the street vending industry in Los Angeles could boost the regional tax base, generating an additional $43 million in state and local tax revenues.

Operating his fruit cart on Figueroa Ave., Flores says he just wants to focus on business - which for him, means selling lime and chile-spiced fruit cocktails for five dollars apiece.

All things considered, he’s done pretty well. Flores owns four carts and has a team selling fruit for him. He manages to support his wife and three young children, paying the $1500 a month rent on their Highland Park home.

He’d rather work without constantly having to pay fines, or losing hundreds of dollars worth of fruit and paying to replace confiscated carts. Still, he says he’ll do what it takes.

“If we have to take out sidewalk permits, okay," Flores said. "Tell us where, how much we have to pay, and let us work.”

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