Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
If the city is serious about improving sidewalk culture, it should decriminalize selling food there.
The best spots for Korean beef-liver sashimi. An even slimier chia-seed-infused smoothie. The unstoppable rise of the horchata latte.
For the food-minded, there’s always news coming out of Los Angeles.
But right now, the big food story is more about politics than it is lacto-fermented hot sauce. And it’s about the identity of the city. Los Angeles, mecca of so many adventurous foodies, is also the last major U.S. city with a ban on street vending. Operating a food truck (another invention of the West Coast metro) is permissible, but the 10,000 to 50,000 (!) hawkers of elotes, popsicles, and bacon-wrapped hot dogs (and DVDs, sunglasses, etc.) pushing carts or coolers across the city are breaking the law with every few dollars they make.
In December 2014, backed by those vendors and their advocates, two city council members proposed guidelines to an ordinance that would completely legalize street vending across L.A. (Past attempts at permitting sellers to set up in specific locations have failed.) Municipal legal analysts, however, requested revisions shortly thereafter, and talks died down for some time.
Last month, the city initiated a series of public hearings over legalization, and a variety of permitting schemes. On June 11, street vendors, their advocates, city politicians, and business owners will again go head-to-head in a debate over what’s good for the city—and what’s good for a large population of workers, who, hard-pressed to find other kinds of jobs, work hard for little pay.
"I make $90 a day," Juan Mendoza, a clothing street vendor, said at a panel in May, according to KPCC. "But … our life is very different than yours. Our days start at 4 a.m. and we'll finish at around 9 p.m., just for a few dollars."
Business representatives have other concerns.
"There's already an overabundance of, not only sidewalk vendors, but street characters and CD vendors and tour bus operators out there soliciting," Nicole Shahenian, representing the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said at that hearing. "It has already created a huge public safety nightmare for the LAPD, and for our business improvement district patrols. If they expand it and legalize it with a one-size-fits-all policy, its really just going to exacerbate the problem."
Thursday’s hearing will involved plenty more impassioned talk from vendors and business owners alike, as well as nitty-gritty details of how the city can effectively regulate vendors.
But these hearings are also about the kind of city Los Angeles wants to be. Will it be a city where streetside snack sellers play an appreciated role in a more vibrant sidewalk culture? Or will it stagnate as the same old unsustainable, car-oriented cliche? Retreating to the latter would be hypocritical, given Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Great Streets” rhetoric on improving pedestrian culture and safety.
“In an automobile-dominated environment devoid of much street life,” writes the cultural anthropologist Fazila Bhimji, “[the] street vendors and the food trucks lend vibrancy to the quiet parks, street corners, and strip malls, such that people stop to eat, chat, and line up as they wait for their favorite taco or tamale or raspada.”
Legal or not, street vendors aren’t going away. It’s a matter of embracing them—for the city’s future.