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Street Vendors: ‘We’ll Believe Legalization Drive When We See it in Practice’

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n a busy street at the edges of Pico-Union, a crowded neighborhood known for its Mexican and Central-American immigrant population, a row of street vendors line up, one by one, next to each other, making their living.

Mostly women, the vendors wait for customers to walk out of an electronic and appliance store in front of them, or for a hungry passerby to stop at the sight or smell of their fruit, churros, and raspados.

Some of them have been selling on the same street for more than ten years, and have been waiting for some form of legal protection to work in Los Angeles for just as long. For them, the city’s slow-moving plan to legalize and regulate street vendors is a step in the right direction, but one they’ll only believe until they see it fully implemented.

“If they are going to legalize vendors, that’s a really good idea, right?” a vendor named Claudia tells me in Spanish. “But sometimes they’ll say that and that’s when police come to bother us. They move us because they say we are disrupting the sidewalk.”

Indeed, street vending, technically, is still not legal. And it may take months or even longer for it to actually happen. An estimated 50,000 unlicensed street vendors — not taco trucks or food trucks — operate in Los Angeles, advocates say, and up to 80 percent of them are women. They all remain in limbo.

In March, vendors and campaigners advocated against the business veto rule. Photo by Jennifer Velez.

On Tuesday, the L.A. City Council voted to ask the City Attorney to draft an ordinance to legalize vending. The latest vote comes more than a year after the City Council voted to decriminalize street vending in L.A. city limits.

That happened in February 2017. Later, in November, a first draft of rules for vending was released that had outrageously strict limitations, such as banning street vendors after 9 pm, or near landmarks such as Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium.

Business leaders argue that vendors discourage tourism in hot spots like Hollywood. Either way, as more vendors crowd the streets, the need for a permit process is clear, even for those who oppose vendors all together.

“We want to present our ‘best face’ forward to visitors to come from all the over world right now,” said Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance, during an interview on AirTalk on Nov. 9. “But what has happened in the past year has become an incredibly confusing and chaotic experience on the streets of Hollywood. It’s nothing short of walking a gauntlet right now.”

“It ends up feeling scary when the area is not well managed,” Morrison added.

A vendor's spread in Pico-Union. Photo by Jennifer Velez.

Tuesday’s vote also eliminated the so-called “business veto” rule was a defeat for the business community’s view that street vendors contribute to losses for brick-and-mortar establishments. The veto would have allowed businesses to prohibit a vendor permit on sidewalk adjacent to their property.

For vendor advocates, it was another step in a long campaign that has lasted five years and has not always been met with open arms by the city’s establishment. Just last month, seven women vendors were arrested outside City Hall during a demonstration against the “business veto.” Advocates fear the veto clause is still on the table and could come up again in the next phases of figuring out regulation.

"We think this illustrates the power that property owners are sometime given to govern the public right of way. It’s a slippery slope," said Rudy Espinoza, an organizer with the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign. "Most Angelenos don’t own property."

On this street in Pico-Union, some of the vendors are hesitant to really start celebrating, especially when it comes to how police treat them.

RELATED: ‘Elotero’ Update: Benjamin Ramirez Is in Business and Looking Beyond the Meme

Though at first reluctant to speak to me, Claudia, who did not want to give her last name, has been selling fruit in Pico-Union for about six years. Overall she’s sold on the street in the same spot for ten years. She’s lost count of how many times she’s gotten ticketed or had her food destroyed by inspectors. She still fears selling her goods every day.

Claudia says she found out about the news this week on Facebook. “Pimeramente dios, what they are saying is true, that would really benefit us” she says, using a phrase meaning ‘hope be’ or ‘god willing.’

Margarita Lozano, from Acapulco, Guerrero, has been selling churros, fried plantains, and quesadillas for ten years. She tells L.A. Taco she took a two-year break from street vending due to constant police harassment.

Ojala” — hopefully — the law happens soon, she tells me. Lozano has helped organize efforts in downtown for vendor rights. Her husband is also a street vendor. She says she does not have much faith in the Los Angeles Police Department, which still keep up periodic enforcement against vendors across the city.

“Instead of helping us, they screw us over,” she says, echoing a widespread sentiment among vendors. In many areas, vendors complain of extortion or harassment from criminals as well. A month ago, a street vendor from Oaxaca was violently assaulted in a group robbery attack in Historic South-Central, leaving the man severely injured. And in summer 2017, a recording of a violent physical attack against “elotero” Benjamin Ramirez in Hollywood went viral.

RELATED: Video Captured Robbery Attack that Left Oaxacan Street Vendor Badly Beaten

Raspados for sale. Photo by Jennifer Velez.

Last in the row on the block is Gerardo, who spreads his time between Pico-Union and Santee Alley in downtown. He made a living selling popsicle sticks, but recently has started to sell raspados, or shaved ice. He hadn’t heard the news. He has also gotten his goods thrown out, and was glad to hear that a plan to legalize his work is in motion. All the vendors say they hope the law will mean more protection for them in terms of assault or harassment.

“When they take away my stuff, I have to start all over again,” Gerardo says. “They should let us sell, and that way we can spend our time selling, because we are not doing anything bad. We are making a living in a dignified way.”

Proponents of the legalization plan for street vendors asked the City Council to attach urgency to the resolution, meaning the body has 60 days to come up with a plan — another step in the process.

RELATED: L.A. Street Food: Past, Present, and Future ~ An Interview with Farley Elliott

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