Author: Keegan McChesney
Los Angeles is home to an assortment of eclectic street vendors, but sadly, these vendors are technically criminals under current city law. Last week, Council Members Curren Price (Ninth District, Downtown and South L.A.) and Jose Huizar (Fourteenth District, Downtown and Northeast L.A.) took the first step to end this paradoxical policy which ignores how integral street vending is in L.A. culture.
Backed by members of Los Angeles Street Vendors Campaign, East L.A. Community Corp, several other organizations and a number of practicing street vendors, Price and Huizar took to city council last week to rally for a motion that would set the city on an overdue path to legalize street vending.
The current laws regarding street vending are completely ignored. According to the Los Angeles TImes, an estimated 10,000 street vendors operate in L.A. County, most of them within city limits. Low-income entrepreneurs have been using street vending as a way to provide for their families for generations. No matter how hard law enforcement has tried, (in most cases, not very hard) street vendors always return.
“It’s an ineffective and unsafe system that ignores the opportunity to foster a vibrant street culture,” a Los Angeles Times editorial said.
Under the current law, Los Angeles street vendors are subject to heavy fines, equipment confiscation and even incarceration. If one were to venture Downtown or to MacArthur Park, it is hard to believe this is true. Street vending is a part of L.A. culture and it’s about time policy reflected its constituency.
The policy also relates to public health for two reasons. First, since street vendors are forced to operate under the shadows, food vendors are not held to national health and sanitation standards. Second, Los Angeles is home to a number of food deserts (communities that don’t have adequate access to healthy food) and food swamps (areas ‘swamped’ by unhealthy food providers such as fast food and convenient stores). Since street vending has a relatively low start-up cost, clever vendors have solved this desire and necessity for healthy food by performing profitable vending methods, as can be observed by the number of fruit and vegetable stands around L.A..
This is evidence that street vending can lead to grassroots solutions for pressing issues. Economic development can come from within the community, from the community members, rather than from government aid. Communities can often solve their own problems effectively, so long as hurdles, such as the law against street vending, are not in their way. In this case, the hurdles haven’t even been too large to overshadow the effectiveness of street vending.
Urban and Environmental Policy Professor Mark Vallianatos has advocated extensively on the subject of street vending in Los Angeles and has written in favor of a policy change.
“Decades ago the city pushed pedestrians out of the streets to make way for cars and banned vendors as obstructions on the sidewalks,” Vallianatos said in a L.A. Streetsblog post. “Removing commerce – and especially food – from the sidewalks made them dead places, so it ironically reduced rather than promoted walking. It’s also frankly embarrassing that L.A., known for its street food, bans all food sales on sidewalks. We have a chance today to bring back legal sidewalk vending to help low income families earn a living, expand distribution of healthy food and create more livable, walkable streets.” The eradication of “dead places” and the aggrandizement of a lively street culture lie at the heart of this proposal. If street vending becomes legalized, Los Angeles will benefit in the long-run.
The timing couldn’t be better. The motion comes at a crucial time for the city, where politicians and citizens are working on multiple fronts to transform Los Angeles culture and space. Recent proposals for the revitalization of the L.A. River, as highlighted last week by Lena Smith’s article, spark an image of a future Los Angeles that fosters, rather than smothers, its one-of-a-kind culture. The image of local food vendors lining the banks of the beautiful L.A. River, selling fresh cut watermelon to children in the park, should be enough to convince anyone that change is needed.
Opponents of the codification of street vending include businesses owners who claim that street vendors take away business and scare away customers. The motion and subsequent law must reflect the needs of these individuals as well. Vendor permit caps per street and required distances from established food businesses are good ways to ensure everyone’s needs are met.
“Adopting a safe, legal and regulated street vending policy that works in concert with and compliments established businesses can add to the economic vitality of our city. Beyond providing much-needed regulation and a pathway for people to vend legally, this plan should also aim to increase access to good, healthy food,” Councilmember Huizar said.
The proposed motion calls for a study that would determine how L.A. could legitimize street vendors. A permit system, regulation methods and other logistics will be mapped out by the proposed study. The study will look at cities such as New York, Chicago, Portland and San Francisco that have changed policies to legitimize street vending and subsequently had impressive results. By looking at these cities for inspiration, the effectiveness of such a policy change can be seen in clear view.
Los Angeles culture is uniquely vivacious. City policies should encourage the continuation and expansion of street vending culture, not ignore and punish it.
Keegan McChesney is a sophomore politics and Urban and Environmental Policy double major. He can be reached at McChesney@oxy.edu or on Twitter at @WklyKMcChesney.
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.