They began arriving late Sunday morning, dozens of vans pulling up around the northeast corner of Echo Park Lake. Out came black trash bags overflowing with clothing. One woman spread a tarp on a strip of grass and neatly laid out children’s clothes that she hoped to sell for 25 or 50 cents each.
By 11 a.m., the merchants had turned Echo Park into a virtual swap meet. They displayed used clothing, VHS videos, toy trucks, dolls and baseball bats on each side of the sidewalk. One man displayed dozens of Hot Wheels. Another offered a pile of worn shoes for sale.
The makeshift market at the popular public park has grown during the economic downturn, vendors said. Now Los Angeles officials are looking to crack down.
“We’ve gotten complaints from the community about the fact that there’s less space for families to picnic, for kids to run around,” said Julie Wong, spokeswoman for City Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district includes Echo Park.
Street vendors need a city license to operate, and police sporadically issue warnings and tickets at the park. But the infrequent patrols have not deterred sellers.
Garcetti’s office is working to coordinate a more consistent approach involving police and other city agencies -- including the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Bureau of Street Services. Fines vary depending on the number of violations, and repeat offenders can face jail time, Wong said. Avoiding tickets has become somewhat of a game over the last few months, vendors said.
No one leaves after the first warning. If vendors see an officer making a second round, the vendors grab their things and go. Later in the day they return after police are gone. “We’re just here trying to make a living,” said Margarita Martinez, 44, who sat with a pile of children’s clothing. She said she made a decent income selling Herbalife nutritional products until the recession hit.
Now she cobbles money together by vending and doing odd jobs. Martinez lives with her seven children in a four-bedroom apartment not far from the park. With the first of the month approaching, she is not sure she will have enough to pay the rent.
“We’re not doing anything bad here,” she said. “We’re not selling drugs. We’re not living on the streets.”
Sunday afternoon, runners and dog-walkers, shoppers and families filled the park.
One family sat on a blanket eating corn and pupusas while a woman next to them sold bacon-wrapped hot dogs from a cart. Shoppers casually walked from tarp to tarp, picking up and eyeing a blouse here, a pair of shoes there. On a good day, a vendor can make $20 or $30, sellers said. Sometimes, however, they leave without making a dime.
Maria Juarez walked the crowded pathway. Her 7-year-old granddaughter wrapped her arms around a Barbie doll in an old box.
Juarez, a 59-year-old Echo Park resident, has diabetes and comes to the park to exercise. Her grandchildren see the trinkets and get excited, she said. The market doesn’t bother her, she said. “People need to make ends meet.”
Adrian Reyes, 35, has lived in the neighborhood since he arrived in Los Angeles nearly 20 years ago, he said. There have always been vendors, but lately there are more than ever.
Like many at the park, he has sympathy for the vendors, but he thinks it might be a good idea to have some regulation so the situation doesn’t get out of control.
A few feet away, Jose Luis Berra, 55, stood in front of a collection of things from his home -- several pairs of old jeans, older cellphones and a few pairs of black boots that he hoped to sell for $8 each. He hadn’t sold a thing all day.
“This isn’t a business,” he said. “It’s just a way to get things out of our home.”