Street Vendors Pay High Price for Unlicensed Trade in L.A.
With her year-old daughter in her arms, Elizabeth, 19, sets up shop on a littered sidewalk near MacArthur Park, where she sells cassette tapes for $1.50 each. She places a cardboard box filled with the tapes near the curb, then sits on a worn milk crate.
Elizabeth, a former student from Guadalajara, Mexico, says that on a good day she makes $20, barely enough to feed her daughter and 9-year-old stepson.
“I can go to sleep without eating,” she said. “But my children can’t. They shouldn’t have to.”
But for Elizabeth and the 1,000 or so unlicensed street vendors in the Los Angeles area, the Latin American tradition of flocking to churches, town plazas and markets to peddle their wares has become increasingly difficult amid sporadic crackdowns by police.
Fined, Sentenced to Jail
Their goods have been confiscated, they have been fined and scores have served jail time as the police enforce laws that restrict street sales. Police officials contend that street sales translate into unfair competition for legitimate businesses, whose owners have complained about hawkers for years.
But many of the vendors--the majority of them single women with children--claim the laws that restrict street sales discriminate against the poor and say they must continue peddling food, clothing, cosmetics, cassette tapes and trinkets on Los Angeles street corners.
“In this country, you can’t make an honest living,” said Maria, who used to peddle women’s clothing on the streets of El Salvador and now hawks her wares on the crowded sidewalks near MacArthur Park. “I see drug dealers and thieves arrested today and out tomorrow. Does that mean the drug dealer and the thief has more rights than (vendors)? We are trying to make an honest living.”
Two arrests and several citations for street vending have not scared Maria, 45, off the streets. She spent three days in county jail and was sentenced to serve 100 hours of community service after her first arrest last year. Almost immediately, she returned to a downtown wholesaler to purchase women’s undergarments to resume peddling on the street.
According to the city attorney, there have been 238 street sales convictions from January through August of this year, compared to 102 for all of 1986. This year, 76 people served time in jail for illegal street sales.
The plight of these street vendors has come to the attention of some local groups, such as the Southern California Ecumenical Council’s Interfaith Task Force on Central America, which has established a small defense fund to help vendors pay fines and meet bail when arrested.
Mary Brent Wehrli, the council’s executive director, said the group has not planned any lobbying efforts to change the city law but hopes to raise the issue among its member congregations.
“Street vending is a worldwide phenomenon,” Wehrli said, “and I think we should find a way to give these women a place in our community.”
In addition, the Working People’s Law Center has challenged--unsuccessfully--the city’s ban on pedestrian street sales, contending that it discriminates against the poor.
The Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibits pedestrians from selling food or merchandise on public streets but allows vending permits to be granted to produce and catering truck vendors, providing they meet various health requirements.
“Poor people who do not have the wealth to own a truck or other vehicle are denied the right to engage in otherwise identical street sales activities,” attorney Sandor C. Fuchs argued this month at a hearing for two women arrested on street sales charges.
But Judge Susan E. Isacoff refused to dismiss the charges, ruling that the city’s street sales ordinances are part of an elaborate statutory scheme that is constitutionally sound. The two women are set to go on trial Nov. 13, and could each face six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine if convicted.
Complaints From Merchants
Once virtually ignored by police, street vendors in downtown and South-Central Los Angeles became the target last spring of county health officials and police, who arrested or fined scores of vendors in response to complaints from irate merchants.
The busy shops and restaurants along Broadway and on the streets around MacArthur Park have attracted aggressive vendors trying to capitalize on the crowds of shoppers.
Rampart Division Capt. Bayan Lewis said police began enforcing the law against street sales about six months ago after area business owners complained that “the problem with vendors was getting totally out of hand.”
Though their initial target were the panhandlers, public drinkers and gamblers, the 40 to 50 vendors who congregated on weekends near the southeast section of MacArthur Park and set up shop in direct competition with business owners could not be ignored, he said.
Although officers arrested violators at first, Lewis said that last June he decided to ticket street vendors rather than going through the lengthy arrest process.
Several vendors in the area, however, have accused the police of using unnecessary force during their sweeps. They say police have tossed their goods in trash cans or given their wares to passers-by.
One vendor, Ana Gonzalez, claims that last June a Rampart Division officer kicked her in the face as she tried to flee with her wares and later under-reported the money taken from her when she was arrested. She reported the incident to police headquarters.
Lewis said the complaint could “neither be proven nor disproven” because of lack of evidence. He added that officers patrolling the area have been urged to “show compassion, especially for these people that are here under difficult circumstances.”
As for allegations that officers threw vendors’ goods out, Lewis said, “That is never acceptable behavior.”
The captain said the number of vendors in the area has been substantially reduced because of the sweeps. Business owners, however, continue to protest--though not without sympathy.
“They sell things that I sell here for a lot less--tomatoes, avocados, bananas and oranges,” said Artemio Dominguez, owner of a produce store across the street from MacArthur Park.
As tax and rent payers, Dominguez and other store owners along 7th and Alvarado streets say they feel forced to call police when the number of vendors increases on weekends and holidays.
“It hurts when you see their goods thrown in the pavement by the police,” Dominguez said. “They are poor people. But I defend my business. We all need to survive.”
Morris Fulton, manager of El Piojito, a family run discount store two doors away on 7th Street, calls the vendor dilemma a “two-way street.”
“They are trying to do something and I can’t criticize anybody for that,” Fulton said. “They have to eat and they have families. But I have to support myself too.”
El Piojito is open all week until 10 p.m., and Fulton said the sidewalk outside the store was becoming a mini-mall of sorts for many vendors. “Congestion is the biggest problem,” he said. “Some (vendors) bring their whole families and some sleep on our sidewalks. When it’s crowded outside, the customers have no place to walk.”
Reiko Habe, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California who has studied street hawkers from Nairobi, Kenya, to downtown Los Angeles, said that image is perhaps the biggest concern on the part of business owners and city officials.
“They don’t want to project an image of backwardness,” she said. “They associate street vending with Third World, underdeveloped countries.”
Street vendors, Habe said, play a significant role in the community: “The proliferation of hawkers in predominantly Latino areas tells you that there is a market there.”
Vendors Unskilled, Uneducated
Habe said her studies showed that the estimated 1,000 street vendors here are “poor, unskilled and uneducated” people who cannot find work in the traditional job market.
The professor said some cities, such as Phoenix, Baltimore and Atlanta, grant vending permits with restrictions on locations and times of sales.
In Phoenix, for example, there are 240 licensed street vendors peddling everything from plywood to auto seat covers, according to the city’s Department of License Services. Permit holders pay a one-time $60 fee.
“Some people say (street vending) makes the city look trashy,” said Bob O’Connell, license services supervisor. “But some of these people have been earning their living that way for years. That’s capitalism.”
Meanwhile, vendors interviewed on Los Angeles streets said they must continue to peddle their wares and questioned the logic behind the city ordinance banning pedestrian street sales.
“If they let us sell on the streets of Los Angeles, this city would have a greater economy,” said Wilmer, a 28-year-old vendor of cassettes on 7th and Alvarado streets. “Each vendor would pay taxes and license fees.”
Elizabeth, the 19-year-old mother of two, said she’s tired of running from the police.
“Sometimes I don’t sell anything,” she said. “Many times the police come, they take my tapes and give them out to people on the street.”
Visibly upset, Elizabeth said she’d rather work than accept a handout.
“Selling on my own is better than asking the government for money,” she said. “When I have no milk to give my daughter, the government doesn’t give me the money for it.”