A street vendor hanging cans of Coke to a customer in a sunny park
Teresa De Leon, 54, works as a street vendor in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

It fizzled out 20 years ago, but the city can do better this time around.

Less than a month after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Los Angeles City Council decriminalized street vending. The timing was no coincidence.

The decision was a long time coming for both immigrant- and small-business advocates, who for decades had been pushing for legalization, but the presidential election was a clear galvanizing factor. In L.A., a sanctuary city, the majority of vendors are Central American immigrants who, if they’re undocumented, could face deportation for a misdemeanor charge under President Trump. L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar described the move as “a sign to this Trump administration that we will not abide by his fear, his vilification, his scapegoating of immigrants.”

With decriminalization, Los Angeles is starting to catch up to the rest of the U.S. Of the 10 largest American cities, L.A. was the last to allow vending. Carla dePaz, a leading organizer for the Legalize Street Vending Campaign at East Los Angeles Community Corporation, knows that this isn’t the end of the matter, however. “I had a feeling of great responsibility for what’s to come,” she tells me via email. The Los Angeles Times reported that the finer points of vending, such as how much control neighborhoods will have over local vendors, the cost of permits, and staff to enforce them, among other concerns, wouldn’t be determined in February. “There are many more challenges that we must overcome,” dePaz adds. “We need city hall to continue working on this issue. They can’t just pat themselves on the back and pretend like the issue has been resolved.”

L.A. grappled with the same issues when it ran an experimental legal vending district in the MacArthur Park neighborhood nearly 20 years ago. The pilot program struggled to stand on its own and died within a few years, but can serve as a cautionary tale for regulators this time around.

In 1988, Michael Woo was in New York City to attend the Democratic National Convention. Woo had started serving on the Los Angeles City Council a few years earlier, and was struck by how rich the street life was in New York compared to L.A., specifically regarding vending. Mulling over the issue more when he returned to L.A., Woo became frustrated by the status quo. He introduced the first motion to legalize street vending shortly after—not because it was something his constituents were clamoring for, but because he thought it would boost street activity and improve the quality of urban life overall.

He soon realized his proposal was going to ruffle a lot of feathers. The Los Angeles Police Department, according to Woo, was concerned that vending would be used as a front for illegal activities, like selling counterfeit jewelry, bootlegged videos, or drugs. Some claimed that vending would be a burden on street life, rather than a boon as Woo had witnessed in New York. “Others, who didn’t represent merchants, thought that street vending represented some deterioration of safety and cleanliness on the street, or thought that street vending represented a decline in property values or the decline of a status of a neighborhood,” Woo recalls.

Parsing the obstacles in front of him, Woo began to think that opposition to vending wasn’t just motivated by business interests or safety, but by anti-immigrant sentiment, too. The United States Refugee Act of 1980 had granted asylum to hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees throughout the decade, with many of them settling in Los Angeles. Street vending is commonplace in many of the refugees’ home countries, and some turned to the practice as one way to get by, which increased their visibility in the public’s eye. By the time Woo introduced the motion for street vending in the late 1980s, anti-immigrant sentiment had grown, later to be exemplified by the passage of California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits like healthcare and public schooling. “For people who were opposed to the increase in immigration—especially [people opposed to] illegal immigrants who may have been political refugees from Central America—street vending became a kind of manifestation of that,” says Woo.

Woo didn’t serve on the city council long enough to see the street vending ordinance pass—he left in 1993, and councilman Mike Hernandez took over the initiative. Whereas Woo came to understand immigration as a key issue for vending only after he brought it to the council, Hernandez understood it as an absolute premise. Hernandez’s district included MacArthur Park, Westlake, and Pico Union, which are predominantly Latino areas by design—the district was the result of a court-ordered redistricting in 1990, after the County Board of Supervisors was found guilty of gerrymandering to disenfranchise Hispanic constituents. Hernandez is himself Latino, and understood that his position on the council was unprecedented. Prior to him, “the Latino community had no representation at the local government level, none at the city council, none at the county,” Hernandez tells me. “Today it’s a whole different environment.” To Hernandez, the immigrant vendors were small-business founders, just trying to get by: “In our city, our democracy, we should basically encourage people trying to make an honest dollar,” he adds.

Another obstacle to vending in the 1990s came from fellow council members, who, according to Hernandez, weren’t keen on supporting vending in their districts for fear of alienating brick-and-mortar business owners: the taquería owner considered taco vendors unfair competition, as vendors didn’t have to pay rent on the sidewalk. The idea arose to instead set up the process for a district to make a special area for street vending, see if it worked, and then allow each council to decide if they also wanted to create their own zone. “The ordinance that was enacted in 1994 didn’t set up a place for legal vending—it set up a process for the creation of legal vending districts,” Gregg Kettles, who wrote extensively about vending in Los Angeles for the Temple Law Review, explains. “MacArthur Park was the only place to survive the very complicated bureaucratic process to get a district set up.”

This method approached vending as a zoning issue—regulating where it could occur as a way to encourage economic development in certain areas. Hernandez compared the method to the same efforts that gave Los Angeles the Staples Center in the late 1990s and L.A Live in the early 2000s. To assuage fears about safety and unfair competition, Hernandez says that they advertised vending to local businesses and policy makers based on its ability to put more eyes on the street. “[The vendors’] eyes and ears could be used to be part of the community,” so that in places with higher crime, “they would be part of the clean-up of the area,” he says.

Eventually, a legal vending district was drawn at the southeast corner of MacArthur Park’s namesake public space—an area already rife with street vendors. The city hired the nonprofit Institute for Urban Research and Development to manage the district, which opened in 1999. Sandi Romero, co-founder of the IURD, noted a few problems from the outset. Because vendors were limited to a specific spot in the specified district, they “weren’t allowed to be ambulatory... they couldn’t wander, they couldn’t participate,” she says. A vendor couldn’t follow pedestrian traffic to serve champurrado on colder days and frutas on warmer ones. According to Kettles’s piece for the Temple Law Review, vendors also had to pay approximately $3,000 a year for their carts—a cost that was far too burdensome for most. And due to fears of compromised traffic to local stores, the kind of wares being sold was tightly regulated, limiting the number and placement of vendors for anything from tamales to plata to VHSs. “A lot of vendors, once they found out they couldn’t do what they wanted, they didn’t want to be part of the program,” says Romero. Also, according to Kettles, enforcement was still too expensive and ineffective to increase the value of legal vending.

Ultimately, there wasn’t sufficient incentive for vendors to play by the rules. The experiment “failed because it was too restrictive on the vendors participating, and because it was a limited zone, so you had illegal vendors right outside the borders,” Mark Vallianatos, a policy analyst who has written about vending in Los Angeles, says. Moving forward, the Council knows they also have to respect how vendors are already working all over the city, structured by their own set of informal rules.

“We’re hoping to get buy-in,” Dennis Gleason, policy director for Joe Buscaino, one of the councilmembers who led the push for decriminalization in February, says. “We’re hoping that these vendors that have been asking to come out of the shadows, to pay taxes, to get a permit, will do so, that will create a system that isn’t overly complex, that’s easy for people (especially if English is their second language) to understand and apply for the permit.” Doña Ofelia, a vendor who sold silver in MacArthur Park in the early 2000s outside of the legal district, was one such vendor. “I want to be able to sell legally,” she says, responding positively to decriminalization.

While functioning vending policy may still be far away, Los Angeles today appears more sympathetic to street vending than it did in the 1990s. “Vending is actually more successful than most intentional placemaking practices in actually getting people outside, and creating a sense of place, a sense of culture,” Vallianatos explains. “The demographics and the politics around immigrants have changed enough that I think now there’s more openness to a better policy… There’s been an upswing and interest in things like placemaking and walking, and good urbanism, partly influenced by the fact that vendors have been doing this informally and people see that working as an attractor.”

Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network in L.A., has worked with the street vending campaign for more than five years, and thinks legal vending would bring about powerful economic growth opportunities. “Some official documents state that there are up to 50,000 vendors in the city... If you get a majority of those people to apply for permits, it changes their lives,” Espinoza says. “There’s a huge opportunity for an industry to grow in Los Angeles to support these thousands of entrepreneurs. If the city legalizes street vending, we’re not only going to get a new revenue base for the city’s coffers, but we’re going to create a new industry with its own jobs and its own resources.”

L.A.’s history gives a wealth of clues toward how it might build a successful street vending strategy for the future. And its learning curve may also help guide other cities trying to craft informal street activities into urbanism policy. Espinoza, for one, is excited: “It's going to change the way our streets operate.”

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