The Occupy movement came to Los Angeles aiming for Wall Street titans, but farmers market vendors are the first to take a real hit.
Two weeks ago, about 40 vendors who sell on the City Hall lawn every Thursday were forced off the property after protesters refused to remove their city of tents.
The mini-businesses — produce farmers, popcorn poppers, flower sellers — were abruptly moved by city officials to a new and less visible location across Main Street. Since that relocation, profits have plummeted, vendors have pulled out and shoppers have become scarce.
“The cause is good,” said Genaro Lopez, a vendor who initially helped protesters with free sodas and burritos. “But this is our bread and butter, and we’ve taken a huge hit.”
Many vendors, who already struggle to make it through the slow winter months, have reported a 40% to 60% drop in sales since the move, said market manager Susan Hutchinson. So far, three have decided to quit showing up until the demonstrators are gone.
The irony is not lost on Occupy L.A. protesters.
“Here we are representing the 99%,” said Martine Fennelly, an activist. “And the farmers are the first to suffer from the movement.”
Still, Fennelly said, protesters are choosing to stay put, because “an occupation means an occupation, not a three-week camp-out.”
The decision was made through a vote Oct. 19, she said. Close to a hundred demonstrators cast votes. Nearly everyone agreed to move, but a handful did not. Because decisions required unanimous approval, the handful won, Fennelly said.
“Some people cried because they were so affected,” she said, adding that the voting rules have changed: A 90% majority is now required.
Fennelly said protesters have tried to help the market by announcing its new location on Twitter and Facebook.
For vendors, some of whom travel from as far as the Central Valley, the publicity is little consolation. As with real estate, they say, location is key.
The 6-year-old market had struggled to find a good spot to sell, Hutchinson said. It started in the Arts district but shut down after six months because of a lack of customers. Then it moved to Little Tokyo, where nearby businesses complained of the competition.
Finally, in 2007, with help from City Councilwoman Jan Perry, the vendors set up shop on the south lawn of City Hall. There, business was thriving. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday, workers descended from City Hall and surrounding high-rises to enjoy lunch, shop and listen to music performances.
“It was a beautiful thing to look out there,” Perry said. “And they’ll be back. We’re going to have to rebuild the confidence of some of the vendors and rebuild momentum, but they’ll be back.”
When that will happen is unclear, because protesters have shown no sign of budging. City Hall officials, who initially embraced the occupation, told demonstrators last week they can’t stay indefinitely. So far, they have not figured out what to do about them.
Until then, Jorge Zaragosa plans to steer clear of the market. For six years, he had traveled 60 miles from Oxnard to sell his fruit and produce. The second week of the protest, he went home with only $180 and a truck full of strawberries, broccoli and other goods. That’s when he decided to bow out.
“I have a lot of expenses,” Zaragosa said. “I don’t have time to go there and gamble.”
For Silvia Ibarra, who drives from Downey to sell $5 jars of honey, the displacement has cost her a day’s pay each week.
Two weeks ago, when the market first moved, Ibarra made $9, 10% of her usual sales. Worried about losing money, her bosses at Aunt Willie’s Apiary told her to stop going to the market.
“Now I’m out $60 a day, $240 a month,” said the mother of three. “That’s gas for a month, or two or three bills.”
Set back in a paved plaza off Main Street, Lopez, the owner of A Taste of Baja, hopes his faithful customers will track him down.
Lopez, like other vendors, bounced from one farmers market to another. But he counted on the City Hall setting to deliver his greatest earnings: about $1,200 per day. People lined up for his ceviche and shrimp tacos, recipes borrowed from his mother to launch the business two years ago.
On the most recent Thursday, he made about $500, just enough to cover his costs.
The night the protesters took their vote, Lopez visited the camp with Hutchinson in hopes of reaching an agreement, but he said he left upset and confused.
“Too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” he said.
But Lopez plans to keep selling from his taco and burrito booth.
“We have no choice but to believe business is going to get better.”