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Street vendors push for legalization in city of LA as county cracks down

Prudencia Lopez displays two citations she's received recently for selling hot dogs as a street vendor in Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County. Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Street vendor Prudencia Lopez has worked the corner of Florence and Graham Avenues for 10 years, selling her bacon-wrapped hot dogs to passersby. In the time she's been there, she said, she's been left alone by police. Last month, that changed.
 
"Tickets, tickets, tickets," Lopez said. "I have a friend who's gotten six tickets … just in this area, between about 10 vendors, they've handed out about 45 tickets."

Lopez has received two tickets for illegal peddling. She's due to appear next month in court, where she faces fines of up to $300 and possible misdemeanor charges.

Like other street vendors in the unincorporated Florence-Firestone area, east of South L.A., Lopez is watching the city of Los Angeles as officials move toward legalizing street vending.

A three-year-old proposal to regulate vending is advancing through the City Council. Earlier this month, a council committee approved a draft plan that would decriminalize vending, allow vendors to apply and pay for permits and set rules on how many vendors can operate per city block.

But none of this applies to the Florence-Firestone area. The same goes for unincorporated East Los Angeles, another neighborhood where a large number of sidewalk vendors sell food, clothing and other items.

Meanwhile, local authorities recently began cracking down on street vendors in Florence-Firestone, issuing tickets to offenders.
 
"We've had vendors impeding foot traffic on public sidewalks, the trash and the debris left behind," said Sheriff's Department Capt. Kerry Carter of the agency's Century Station.

Carter said he came on board at the station this year and began hearing complaints about street vendors from residents and businesses, including the local chamber of commerce, which issued fliers encouraging people to call in complaints.

He said it's especially bad on weekends in some places, like along Alameda Street, where he's seen pedestrians get crowded off of the sidewalks.

"I also drove through those areas myself, and I was also able to witness where we would have families and children that had to actually go into the street, because the sidewalks were blocked," Carter said.

He said deputies have responded lately by issuing tickets.

There's no ready solution in these unincorporated zones. Unlike with the city, "there are no immediate plans in the works for the county to legalize street vending," Al Naipo, a spokesman for County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, wrote in a email to KPCC. The Florence-Graham area is in Ridley-Thomas' district.

The county does have a mechanism for food vendors to apply for county health permits. However, they must sell on private property with permission, or risk being cited.
 
At the corner of Florence and Graham, Magdalena Mejia takes her chances. She said she's been selling tamales there for more than two decades.
 
"I take a risk," she said. "Why? Because this is where my clientele has been since I arrived, 23 years ago. Thank God, people know me."
 
Mejia hasn't been ticketed yet in the recent crackdown, she said. But she knows people who have been, including her daughter-in-law.
 
Street vending proponent Mike Dennis with the East L.A. Community Corporation predicted that if the city of Los Angeles legalizes vending, it will set off a chain reaction. 
 
"We do believe that once the city has updated its framework, that the county will have to follow suit," he said.
 
But Prudencia Lopez isn't waiting for that day. If the city does legalize street vending, she'll leave county territory and move within city limits a few blocks away, she said.