Black Friday: For LA street vendors, it's a war game

Kenneth Simpson sets up on Alvarado Street in MacArthur Park, and sells Bob Marley flags, t-shirts and accessories.
Kenneth Simpson sets up on Alvarado Street in MacArthur Park, and sells Bob Marley flags, t-shirts and accessories.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

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While some people are battling their way through Black Friday sales, we decided to explore a different type of shopping ... on the street.

On Alvarado Street near MacArthur Park, street vendors sell everything from bacon-wrapped hot dogs and fresh fruit to jewelry, stretch pants and cleaning supplies. They sit on crates or perched on their cars and display their goods on a folding table or on top of a blanket on the sidewalk. 

Kenneth Simpson is from Jamaica and has been in the U.S. for 15 years; he's been street vending for two. Simpson used to sell in Venice but got too many citations. So now, he's set up on Alvarado Street, transporting his Bob Marley merchandise in a well-worn minivan.

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Two to five days a week, he’s selling shirts, bandanas and jewelry in the traditional Rasta colors of red, gold and green. He hangs T-shirts and purses from his van and lays out accessories on a folded tarp on the ground. Most of his merchandise comes from Jamaica or warehouses in downtown L.A.

Simpson lives with his sister in Long Beach and commutes to MacArthur Park. Some days he makes nothing. On a great day, he could make $200 to $300. Either way, he says vending is a full-time job, but one without much security.

“But on the street, selling on the street is a lot of war games," said Simpson. "Not with the people or the vendors, but with the police. 'Cause sometimes the police come, everybody have to pack up.” 

On a recent Sunday, dozens of vendors were set up on a four-block stretch of Alvarado. When the police showed up, word spread quickly and vendors began packing up. This is a common drill — done quietly and methodically. Simpson says sometimes, he will pack and unpack his goods four times in one day.

That’s because a ticket for illegal vending can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on if you’re a repeat offender. A hefty price tag for sellers who often don’t make very much.

“The reason I started selling street vending [is] because I’m not a rich guy, I’m a poor guy," said Simpson. "I don’t have the money where I can open a store."

According to city statistics, over the course of one year there are hundreds of arrests made for illegal vending in L.A. For vendors, run-ins with law enforcement can mean having their merchandise confiscated or thrown out.

For some vendors, the stakes can be even higher.

No green card

“Most of these people who are running from the police, they don’t got no green card. They don’t got no documents," said Simpson. "And some of them get tickets and don’t go to court, so if the police bust them and search their name and they have a warrant, they take them to jail."

Simpson recently got a ticket for vending in MacArthur Park. He said the cop took a picture of his license plate and his merchandise, and said if he sees him selling again he’s going to take him to jail. 

But Simpson was back out in his same spot the very next day. He has to be, he says — it’s the way he makes a living. And he’s hoping the police won’t come back twice in one weekend.

“I don’t think the sergeant’s going to come today," he said. "Because he worked yesterday, today’s Sunday, and he might want to spend time with his wife or his kids.”  

Simpson is due in court for the ticket in a few weeks. He’s hoping the cop won’t show and his case will get dismissed. Worst-case scenario, he’ll do some community service or pay a portion of the fine.

But this is just the nature of the street vending business.

“You’re not breaking into nobody’s house, you’re not fighting with nobody, you’re not doing anything wrong," he said.

That is, besides what the law says is wrong. But Simpson said street vending is better than alternative forms of making money, like selling drugs.

So a group of street vendor advocates and city officials are working together to legalize vending in L.A. And although Simpson supports the legalization of his job, he doubts that he’ll ever be able to sell legally along bustling Alvarado Street.

“This street is for the people to walk, so I don’t think they’re gonna legalize the vending, on this street," he said. 

Officials are looking to cities like New York and San Francisco for examples of how these sidewalk sales may work. Councilmen José Huizar and Curren Price brought a motion to the L.A. City Council a few weeks ago pushing for the legalization of street vending. They're expecting a report back in a few months about the feasibility of such a program.

And although this isn't the first time the City has tried to get a handle on illegal vending, Huizar said this time is different. Their effort now isn’t about stamping out vending – it’s about making it legal and safe. And they have the support of some street vendors.

“What makes this different from before is the approach that we’re taking," said Huizar. "Where everyone’s coming to the table and saying OK, how do we make this work for everybody, because right now its really a lose-lose-lose situation.” 

Huizar said they hope to have a street vendor system up-and-running by the end of 2014.

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