The Los Angeles City Council paved the way Wednesday to give outdoor vendors at the Eastside’s bustling El Mercado de Los Angeles the permanent home some have sought for decades.
The council tentatively approved a zoning change allowing a new building on the property into which vendors who now hawk goods in the mercado parking lot could move.
The council action pleased the 40 vendors who sell everything from taquitos to toys to as many as 30,000 visitors a month. But many of those who already have permanent homes--residents of the Boyle Heights neighborhood outside the market at East 1st Street near Lorena Street--are outraged.
They see the market, with its blaring music, throngs of customers and notoriety as an outlet for black market medicines, as eroding the standard of living they are struggling to uphold.
“I’m all for entrepreneurs, but not at the expense of the neighborhood,” said Diana Tarango, 64, who has lived all her life in the house her grandfather bought in 1905. Tarango complained that because liquor is sold in the current building, customers sometimes leave the market drunk. She said many in the large weekend crowds also bring litter and traffic congestion to the neighborhood.
Vendors and supporters of El Mercado owner Pedro Rosado, however, said other residents support Rosado’s plan to construct a building that would move vendors indoors. They brought a petition of support to the City Council meeting signed by area residents.
Over the years, El Mercado also has become a chip-on-the-shoulder topic for feuding politicians. That was apparent Wednesday when County Supervisor Gloria Molina showed up to blast away at the zoning change proposed by her rival, outgoing Councilman Richard Alatorre.
“As usual, I am here to express my concern with this action by Councilman Alatorre,” Molina said. Molina called El Mercado owner Rosado “an irresponsible businessman,” claiming he has neglected residents’ concerns about problems created by market crowds.
Molina’s show of force was met by the appearance of two prominent Alatorre backers: state Sen. Richard Polanco and former Councilman Art Snyder, both of whom claimed that upgrading El Mercado was a matter of justice for Latino entrepreneurs.
Polanco said approving the zoning change would encourage vendors--who operate in violation of zoning laws--to work within the legal system. “Those affected most if you deny this will be 30 to 40 families of vendors who have a right to play by the rules. This is about a fundamental principle,” he told the council.
Snyder, a former lobbyist who preceded Alatorre as the district’s councilman, said the zoning change would be an important improvement for the market, which he said was a community asset. “I was at its opening 30 years ago. I buy my tortillas there. . . . If any of you go over there, you will see it is beautiful,” he said, prompting homeowners in the audience to grimace.
A popular weekend destination for shoppers from throughout the city and suburbs, El Mercado began as a community-sponsored market in 1968. Brothers Ben and Arturo Chayra knocked on doors throughout the Eastside, collecting donations and selling $1 shares. That seed money helped the brothers secure a federal small business loan to open the market.
“I believed in it when it first came into being. They were selling fresh flowers and the parking was underground,” Tarango said. Now, and especially since liquor began being sold there, “it brings in the wrong clientele,” she said.
At the sprawling market, vendors outside under blue plastic tarps and in the main, three-story building sell everything from meats, cheeses, leather jackets and Mexican rodeo videotapes to herbal medicines.
In a raid last year, Los Angeles police and county health officers seized between $500,000 and $1 million worth of medications being sold illegally, including antibiotics, steroids and liquid ether.
Juana Gutierrez, president of Mothers of East Los Angeles, downplayed the seriousness of the drug sales. “If you’re serious about doing something about drugs, go to Whittier Boulevard and the alleys,” she said, referring to street narcotics sales.
Alatorre also suggested the medication sales were not a serious problem, saying his relatives had bought such items in the past.