The video was shocking. A bearded man argues with an elotero, or street-corn vendor, accusing him of blocking the sidewalk in a Hollywood neighborhood. The dispute escalates and the bearded man pushes over the vendor's cart, spilling the ears of corn as well as condiments and supplies. The elotero defends himself with a blast of chili powder flung at the assailant — and with a far more powerful weapon, his phone, on which he captured the attack on video.
The vendor's mom posted the video online and within days it went viral, sparking condemnation of the attacker and a fundraising campaign for the 24-year-old vendor to replace his merchandise.
The incident was a reminder that street vendors in Los Angeles have a kind of duel identity. The elotero and other peddlers are often fixtures of the community, and street food — from bacon-wrapped hot dogs to chili-sprinkled mango — is part of L.A.'s cultural identity. Yet street vending is still illegal in Los Angeles, and these sidewalk entrepreneurs operate without the legitimacy, regulations and protections of a permitted business.
In February, the City Council voted unanimously to decriminalize street vending. The decision means city inspectors or police can issue citations and levy fines for peddling goods on the sidewalk, but sellers won't face criminal charges that could lead to deportation for vendors in the country illegally — a longstanding concern that became urgent with the election of President Trump. That was an important change because problems associated with street vending, such as cluttered sidewalks or trash, are quality of life issues, not crimes. Nobody should be deported simply for selling tacos or fruit on the sidewalk.
Yet nearly six months later, we're still waiting for an ordinance to legalize street vending and set practical, enforceable rules to guide the industry. Councilmen Curren Price and Joe Buscaino outlined a proposal last year to allow up to four stationary vendors per block in commercial and industrial zones. But the proposal raised issues that Price, Buscaino and their council colleagues have not resolved, particularly over how much power council members and brick-and-mortar business owners should have to bar the vendors seeking to operate on their streets or outside their shops.
Certainly it's not easy to develop a street vending policy that will please everyone, but city leaders don't need to reinvent the wheel here. Los Angeles is one of the few big cities in the nation that does not allow some form of sidewalk vending. The longer city leaders let this street vending legal limbo drag on, the longer self-appointed sidewalk enforcers, like the bearded man in Hollywood, will feel empowered to target and harass vendors.