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No Sale : Street vending law has been rendered ineffective by strife, organizer says

Javier Rodriguez helped organize street vendors in East Los Angeles prior to the passage of the Street Vending Ordinance in January, 1994. He then served briefly as the coordinator for the Street Vendors’ Organization (Asociacion de Vendedores Ambulantes). Rodriguez, who lives in El Sereno, continues to coordinate protests and lobbying activities for vendors in the East Los Angeles, Pico-Union and West 6th Street areas.

The first anniversary of the Sidewalk Vending Ordinance, approved on January 4, 1994, by the Los Angeles City Council, arrived and left unnoticed and uncelebrated. Of course, there wasn’t much to commemorate anyway. To date, not one of the estimated 7,000 street vendors hawking the streets of L.A. has a vending license.

The vendors have fallen victim to an unprecedented police crackdown, unscrupulous organizations and to internal strife that has almost blown away the dream that began with the spiritual guidance of the late Catholic priest, Father Luis Olivarez. City Ordinance 169319 culminated a five-year venture by Los Angeles street vendors and supporters. Unfortunately, the new city law was born into a pernicious immigrant-bashing environment, forcing organized vendors to dedicate most of ’94 to fighting for dignity and survival.

The ordinance, a two-year pilot program, regulates street vending in Los Angeles, mandates the creation of eight special vending districts and, to protect vendors in the interim, the ordinance guarantees that ". . . the council shall adopt a humane and comprehensive endorsement on sidewalk vending. . . .” The enforcement practiced on vendors in ’94 hardly qualified as a model of humanitarian police conduct.

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In retrospect, the lack of districts and permits impede any objective assessment of the ordinance, but most quarters agree that the inherently bureaucratic piece of legislation has, up to now, not met the expectations.

The City Council did not foresee the formidable obstacles vendors would eventually face in their drive to make the law a reality in the streets, and when reminded throughout ’94, with few exceptions, it looked the other way.

The ordinance also closed the door on hot food vendors, including taqueros (taco vendors), who are the largest and fastest-growing sector of L.A.'s street entrepreneurs. The reason: The ordinance faithfully complies with county health laws that require that all hot food sold on the streets be precooked and pre-packed--except hot dogs, of course.

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Joking aside, when was the last time you bought a precooked taco in Los Angeles? Certainly not even Taco Bell or Jack in the Box would contemplate such a thing. Plain and simple, it is not good business.

Now, although no official report has yet been published on annual taco sales in the country, as a former restaurateur, I believe that just as salsa surpassed ketchup as the country’s No. 1 sauce, tacos may have also overtaken hot dogs and hamburgers as the country’s top fast food.

The quandary clearly reveals a shortsightedness by the vendors’ former lobbyists, who I suspect have a middle-class perspective to the street vending phenomena, a la Santa Monica Promenade. But more, they appear to be insulated from the Mexican community, who make up the overwhelming majority of Latinos in Los Angeles.

So far, only two petitions seeking special vending districts have been submitted to Public Works by the city’s docile vendor groups. The third one, with close to 50% of the area’s established merchants on board, was designed collectively by the vendors. It includes 15 proposed vending zones and has a potential for up to 500 vendor licenses in the Boyle Heights district in East L.A. This, by far, is the most ambitious district projected by vendors in Los Angeles.

However, the petition never made it to the city. Internal divisions, irresponsibly encouraged from the outside, tore apart the Street Vendors Assn., and the petition is now sitting idle.

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On balance for 1994, the immigrant vendors showed an admirable resolve to survive. The adverse conditions and superior forces working against them were not able to bend their dignity and will to endure.

But 1995 augurs a different scenario. Unless vendors resolve their internal conflicts, it is highly predictable that their numbers and moral authority will further dwindle, rendering their struggles ineffective.

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For the upcoming City Council hearings on the ordinance, in the last quarter of ’95, a divided and powerless vendor’s movement will not have the strength to lobby for an extension of the law, or to broaden the ordinance to include the bulk of vendors. This would prove disastrous.


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