Group of Street Vendors Licensed in Test of Reform

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Dina Serrano has been cited a dozen times for selling homemade tamales in her Pico-Union neighborhood. Her food and equipment have been confiscated and her nerves so rattled that last time officers had to summon an ambulance, leaving the Salvadoran native with an emergency room bill that did little to ease her anxiety.

But all of that is now behind her.

After more than five years of organizing, politicking and false starts, the city’s first legal sidewalk vending district is about to open for business in MacArthur Park. Serrano is among the 15 vendors selected to participate so far--and was the first to receive her city licenses. Other vendors received their photo IDs and bright vending stickers Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, officials and community groups hope to unveil the district early next month. Vendors who have long dodged police and health inspectors will ply their wares from rented, $7,000 wooden carts similar to those on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Officials hope the district will one day become a tourist draw similar to Olvera Street, helping to revitalize the once-drug-plagued park as a city landmark.


“Thanks to God and all the people who have helped us, we have now been accepted by the city of Los Angeles,” said Serrano, who fled the war in El Salvador 10 years ago and is raising four children alone. “We can move our families forward and become an example for other programs.”

In fact, the opening of the MacArthur Park Sidewalk Vending District is nothing short of a referendum on legal vending. The first of its kind in Los Angeles, its success or failure could determine the fate of other proposed vending sites, long opposed by residents and merchants who decry the trash and chaos of street vending.

But while the MacArthur Park district may offer opportunities--at a cost--to a small group of vendors and give the park a face-lift, illegal street vendors and others say it will do little to curb the pervasive problem of sidewalk vending.

“If it flies as a prototype, it’s a steppingstone for things to come,” said Norm Langer, who runs the venerable Langer’s Deli on 7th and Alvarado streets and has thrown his weight behind the district on the condition that illegal vending is quashed. But “it’s not an answer. It’s not even a Band-Aid.”

The City Council approved the creation of legal districts to the cheers of 300 vendors in January 1994. The ordinance required that participating vendors comply with strict regulations and obtain the support of neighboring residents and merchants.

The first project was expected to begin six months later. Instead, it took years.

Vendors collected signatures from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Monica, but eventually many dropped out of the effort as time dragged on. City leaders, too, backed away from proposed districts when confronted with opposition from residents.


Supporters of the MacArthur Park district credit Councilman Mike Hernandez for gathering support from business leaders like Langer and working closely with community organizations to set up the district.

While Hernandez acknowledged that the city will never do away with illegal vending, he said the project could expand to parks citywide and offer a systematic route out of the underground economy.

“What we’re really talking about is legitimizing microbusinesses, giving them the tools to operate,” he said. “The district is going to be a training ground, where [vendors] can move on to the next phase of opening their own little shops.”

Details of the MacArthur Park Sidewalk Vending District were hammered out by the Episcopal Diocese’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul with help from the Assn. of Salvadorans (ASOSAL) and Robert Valdez, the Community Development Department’s sidewalk vending administrator.

The Cathedral Center--under a $235,000 contract with the city--last year brought in the nonprofit Institute for Urban Research and Development to manage the district.

Organizers have carefully selected participating vendors and their wares to make sure that they do not compete with one another or surrounding merchants, nor duplicate the goods available at Olvera Street’s Mexican marketplace.


The first 15 vendors will sell mostly crafts from their native lands and food prepared in advance. They are expected to begin selling June 19. Other vendors will be phased in, bringing the maximum number to 50, and hot food carts will be introduced later. Licenses cost about $700 a year and cart rentals could run as much as $250 a month.

To improve the odds of success, two credit unions--Comunidades Federal Credit Union and the Episcopal Community Federal Credit Union--have given many of the first vendors loans to help defray the costs of licensing, merchandise and mandatory cart rentals. In addition, USC and most likely the nonprofit group New Economics for Women will offer entrepreneurial training to vendors, said Executive Director Joseph Colletti of the Institute for Urban Research and Development.

Vendors in the program are elated. “We want to participate in every class they offer,” said Laura Diaz, 33, who received her vendor’s badge Thursday along with business partner Rocio Mojica, 39. The pair will sell leather, metal and ceramic handicrafts from Mojica’s native Mexican state of Morelos.

But many vendors working the city streets say the legal district will do little to help them.

Maria Rodriguez, 30, arrived from Mexico six months ago and has been selling pillows, pistachios and fruit at a dusty East Los Angeles corner for three months. She earns about $30 a day in profit and wouldn’t be able to afford permits, she said.

Despite her doubts, one vendor got on the waiting list because she is tired of playing cat and mouse with police, who have stepped up enforcement near the park.


“Some days you sell a little and some days you sell a lot. Business is like that,” said 77-year-old Carmen Garcia. “It’s possible that during the first month they won’t make enough to eat.”