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In South Central, a Swap Meet Faces an Uncertain Future and Stirs Up Conversations About Immigrant-Owned Small Businesses and Space

[dropcap size=big]F[/dropcap]or 30 years, Los Amigos Mall in South Central Los Angeles was a community hub for local residents. On May 20th, the vendors that make their living at the mostly indoor swap meet received 30-day notices to vacate their units. The owner is closing it down permanently. 

“There are vendors that have been there for 30 years when it first opened up,” said Isaac Juarez, owner of Montiana Naturales. Located on the corner of Maple Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard, the bright purple exterior of Los Amigos is instantly recognizable. Food, clothing, household products, and specialty items could all be found there. These are also the typical goods bartered and purchased by a mostly Latino and Black clientele in a genuine indoor swap meet in Los Angeles, an informal marketplace that has existed for decades that is now in danger of ceasing to exist due to coronavirus restrictions. 

“This swap meet, like a few others in L.A. was converted from a manufacturing facility. Through its design and use it provided social networking and cultural programming that served the most disadvantaged groups in South L.A.,” explains Urban Planner James Rojas. “The sheds were painted purple and an open space was located in the center complex that held a stage for music, a children’s playground, benches, trees, and an outdoor dining area. I remember the paseos were named after different places in Latin America as well.”

Photos by Zully Juárez, James Rojas, and Erick Huerta.

That’s how Juarez came to be a vendor at Los Amigos. He saw the potential in the space and made a living there for 20 years, selling herbal remedies and supplements. When he first started, all he had was a small supply of natural medicines and a 10 by 10-foot space that he rented month to month. On his first day, he only made $20 in sales. He told himself, “If I start out with $20 today, tomorrow it will be more and by the grace of God, business picked up from there,” says Juarez.

“We have to expand how we think about entrepreneurship in this country and how we build communities.”

However, like every other non-essential business, the indoor swap meet had to close when the state-wide order was issued due to the Covid-19 pandemic. All the vendors were given the news and were instructed to gather whatever they needed from their stands and wait until the order was lifted. That was three months ago. Outdoor swap meets in the L.A. area like Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet have been exempt from this closure order.
With restrictions on businesses being eased these last few weeks, Juarez was looking forward to being able to open up again. He knew it would only happen if safety measures were put in place and followed by everyone, so he talked to the swap meet manager, Adolfo Hernandez, to ask about the safety guidelines and how they would be followed. 

Isaac Juarez and his wife at his stand at Los Amigos.

He was told that swap meet security would be making sure that everyone coming in would following safety guidelines. A few days later, Juarez got the call that the swap meet was going to close down. “This is an injustice. We have bills to pay and families to support, just like everyone else. We haven’t been able to work the last three months and everything has been piling up to the point that we’re getting physically sick just thinking about it,” explains Juarez.

On one of the days Juarez was at his stand, he ran into one of the owners of Los Amigos, Jorge Torres. (The swap meet, along with all of the paperwork the tenants signed, is under the name Rigoberta Torres.) “I went up to him and told him, ‘Look, I know you’re in a hurry but please give me a minute to talk to you about what’s going on.’ He wasn’t happy about it, but I asked him to give all the vendors a few extra days to get their things. Everything is still closed because of the pandemic and we have nowhere else to go. It’s unjust for you to rush us and to just throw our things out on the street. If you give us a few extra days, that would help us figure out what to do with all our merchandise. I told him to give it serious thought, but he never got back to me,” said Juarez in a frustrated voice. “At the end of the day, I’m not mad or bitter about the situation. God only knows why things happen the way they do.”

Since vendors got their 30-day notice to vacate, the South Central local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union began work to support the vendors and raise awareness of the situation. One of the vendor's kids got in contact with LATU and asked for support. From there, organizers meet with vendors to hear their concerns and to start mobilizing. Paul Lanctot, an organizer with LATU, said they’ve tried to meet with the owner of Los Amigos in person to discuss opening up the swap meet again, but they have not responded to any request. L.A. Taco has also reached out for comment but has not heard back. 

On Saturday, June 13th, vendors and community members gathered for a rally to demand that the swap meet stay open. Despite the severity of the situation, the day was filled with music, food, and people coming together to support one another. LATU has created a gofundme page to support the vendors in helping cover the cost of back rent and their organizing efforts. While there isn’t much the vendors can do at the moment, taking the owner to court is being considered by the committee of vendors who want to keep Los Amigos open. Despite it being a drawn-out and expensive process, the vendors will not give up without a fight.    

Swap Meets Fading Away

The closing of Los Amigos in South Central is a harsh reminder that in the last few years, more and more indoor swap meets have been closing down their doors. From the social connections they helped form to their legacy of being a small business opportunity attainable to immigrant communities, swap meets have been an integral part of the informal commerce within Los Angeles. Standing hand in hand with street vending.

In 2015 when The Compton Fashion Center closed down, thousands lamented its loss in the community. From helping West Coast rap connect with an audience to providing a space for families to shop, its loss is still felt today. Union Swap Meet in East Hollywood closed down last year after 34 years in the community. Sold to a developer and torn down to make way for a residential and retail complex. The same with the Highland Swap Meet in Highland Park in 2015, whom also evicted its decades-old business tenants to make way for the boutique shops that stand in its place right now. 

“How do we change the policies to really embrace those kinds of businesses. It shouldn’t rely on the whim of a developer or an owner, otherwise, we lose all the social cohesion that was built there. [And] all those connections and people that went there for all those years,” says Rojas. “It’s just really sad because the city is not doing anything about it and all the vendors lost their livelihoods and that business along with the community that went with it. Family connections are being cut.”

To Rojas’ point, swap meets have always been there for disenfranchised residents who lived outside of L.A’s core neighborhoods. They provided a space for immigrants to be able to their own business and support their families. Yet, there is no ignoring the fact that the city and people’s spending habits have drastically changed in the last decade. Nonetheless, swap meet stand owners and their customers invested in these spaces and activated them before they were seen as merely money signs over southern California property.  

“All these swap meets were built more than 20 years ago on underutilized land that no one gave a shit about,” says Rojas. “But now that property has gotten so much more expensive, these kinds of places aren’t kept up and maintained or they’re being redeveloped into housing or something else.” 

The economic and development pressures are devastating communities in so many ways and the legacy swap meets created are in developers’ sights. “It is really important for the city to be looking for a way to support these entrepreneurs so they can survive. We have to expand how we think about entrepreneurship in this country and how we build communities,” says Rojas. 

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