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MacArthur Park's Street Vendors Are Hiding But Not Gone

A street food vendor in MacArthur Park. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)
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The dozens of pupusa and bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors that once lined the sidewalks of MacArthur Park have largely vanished during the past month. As if the coronavirus and subsequent stay-at-home orders weren't enough of a challenge, on March 17, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion imposing a temporary moratorium on street vending in the city.

The motion also urged the Bureau of Street Services and the Los Angeles Police Department to crack down on street vendors who lacked the proper permits.

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"If restaurants, bars, public venues and others are complying and closing down their dine-in services for the health and safety of our residents, then street vendors should also do their due diligence by being thoughtful of these times," said councilmember Gil Cedillo, an outspoken supporter of the motion.

After nearly a century of legislation to ban street vending, Los Angeles in November 2018 finally enacted regulations to make it legal, following California's decision to legalize street vending.

Rigoberto Morales sells chicharrones in the Pinata District of downtown Los Angeles on March 23, 2019. (Agustin Paullier/AFP via Getty Images)

Starting on January 1, 2020, food vendors were required to obtain a number of state and local permits and were given six months to comply. But obtaining the necessary permits remains a costly and confusing process -- and COVID-19 has made it more difficult.

Before the pandemic, depending on what type of vendor you were, obtaining all of the necessary permits could take anywhere from a couple weeks to several months. There's a $541 annual permit fee for all street vendors plus fees for a state permit, a local permit and a business tax registration certificate.

Julio Duran, a food vendor in neighboring Pico-Union, says that amid the pandemic, wait-times are "intolerable now." Since the new rules for street vending went into effect four months ago, the city of Los Angeles has issued fewer than 30 food licenses.

Within days of the city council's recent edict, investigators from the Department of Public Works began patrolling MacArthur Park in force.

At first, they walked around informing vendors of their rights and passing out information about permits. Some vendors brushed off the warnings while others got scared enough to close up shop. Later, investigators began issuing citations, and the number of food vendors in MacArthur Park plummeted.

A street vendor sells face masks from a pop-up stand on April 15, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

On March 21, vendors were still peddling off-brand speakers, clothing and hygiene products at the entrance of the Westlake-MacArthur Park Metro station. On a nearby corner, you could buy a pupusa or hot dog before popping into the dollar store.

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On March 24, a woman selling thermoses and laundry detergent engaged customers on the corner of Wilshire and Alvarado boulevards, steps away from five Department of Public Works investigators.

By March 26, all of the tents near the Metro station and most of the food vendors along Alvarado Boulevard were gone, a shocking sight for locals. That day, an investigator from the Bureau of Street Services told LAist that authorities had started issuing citations and vendors had been ordered to move.

Today, you'll still find dozens of sellers at peak times but their wares have changed. Now, they're mostly selling cell phone chargers, dietary supplements, instant coffee, fresh produce and masks. Anecdotally, the investigators don't seem to mess with vendors selling masks. You'll occasionally find someone selling bags of tamales or cups of ceviche but it's rare to see anyone preparing hot food from a sidewalk cart.

Generally seen in pairs or teams, Bureau of Street Services investigators are part of the law enforcement arm of the Department of Public Works. They have many of the same powers as LAPD officers. They can issue notices to appear in court, serve warrants and even make arrests. The division has a Memorandum of Agreement with the LAPD, granting them peace officer authority.

BSS investigators wear dark uniforms with "City of Los Angeles Investigator" stitched on their backs and although the weapons they carry are reportedly non-lethal, they resemble the firearms that police officers use. Their presence alone can be intimidating.

Investigators from the Bureau of Street Services walk around the Westlake-MacArthur Park neighborhood on April 18, 2020. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

A Game Of Cat And Mouse

On the corner of Westlake Avenue and 6th Street, a few vendors of secondhand hardware and clothing vendors wait for customers -- and maybe a storm -- on a dreary, mid-April Sunday afternoon.

"The rain is coming!" someone yells as a pair of BSS investigators turn the corner.

The investigators tower over the vendors as they kneel and gather their belongings. Nobody receives a ticket but the message is clear.

A few days later, the vendors are back.

Although street vending enforcement has increased in the last month, the game of cat and mouse between vendors and city investigators predates the City Council's order.

Robin Lifland is a board member of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council. They say enforcement of street vendors along Alvarado and Bonnie Brae increased "the day [Councilmember] Cedillo opened his office."

On November 23, 2019, Cedillo hosted a community event to celebrate the debut of his 6th Street headquarters. "All vendors on [6th Street] and Alvarado down to Wilshire were removed. Then they were regularly harassed after that," Lifland says.

Located on the ground floor of a 1920s hotel that was converted into an affordable housing complex, Cedillo's office is shouting distance from one of the epicenters of Los Angeles street food, the Guatemalan Night Market.

A street food vendor in MacArthur Park. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

For years, the corners of Bonnie Brae and 6th were packed with vendors from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., every day of the week. Hundreds of patrons regularly thronged the coal-charred sidewalks to feast on $5 helpings of freshly fried chicken and papas, barbecued meats, pupusas, Guatemalan tamales and shredded beef tacos topped with fried onions and cabbage.

The smoky, ad hoc marketplace was a testament to the diversity of MacArthur Park, home to the second largest population of Guatemalans in the world.

In a neighborhood where the median household income is only $26,000, food can be difficult to come by. Despite its density, the area has only one mainstream grocery store, a Food 4 Less on 6th Street. Instead, residents rely on smaller and more limited carnicerias, liquor stores, 99-cent stores and tienditas for grocery items.

According to Lifland, a significant number of MacArthur Park residents who live in SROs or motel rooms don't have access to kitchens. For many, street vending is both a potential source of income and a vital source of food.

On March 18, the day after the City Council passed a moratorium on street vending and the day before a citywide "safer at home" order was announced, LA Taco reported that as dozens of customers chowed down on food, an LAPD cruiser circled the block, recording video.

Less than a week later, the difference was stark. Aside from a few people selling arroz con leche, the streets looked like a ghost town and the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae was missing a couple layers of grease.

A street vendor waits for customers as she sells face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic on March 30, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A New Normal -- With Old Risks

Despite increased enforcement, a few food vendors have adapted to the new normal and are willing to risk not only their health but also their freedom so they can make ends meet.

One Friday afternoon in late April, you could feel the tension at 6th and Alvarado. Two BSS investigators were marching up the street. When they reached 6th street, they put on disposable black gloves and confiscated dozens of DVDs from a street vendor, dumping them into the trunk of their Ford.

"People have no money, it's no good," a middle aged man said as he shook his head and recorded the raid from across the street on his phone. "People need money for rent."

Investigators from the Bureau of Street Services confiscate DVDs from a MacArthur Park street vendor on April 17, 2020. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

From there, the investigators continued east along 6th Street where they forced a group of men selling secondhand clothes and construction tools to pack up.

Near the southern border of the park, a young man stood in front of a pawn shop, swiveling his head as he sold $1 homemade donuts out of a plastic container. He said he usually sells out of the chocolate, sugar and custard-filled pastries within a couple hours.

Meanwhile, a group of BSS investigators and LAPD officers congregated near the 99-cent store by the Metro stop.

Further south, on the corner of 8th and Alvarado, a young woman pushed a red work cart that she had modified into a plancha, looking for a spot to sell tlayudas. Eventually she found one outside a dollar store near a construction site, where she was partially hidden behind a wall of parked cars. While she waited for her grill to heat up, she had a quick bite to eat.

A street food vendor in MacArthur Park warms up tamales. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

Another woman, selling tamales out of a smaller makeshift grill covered in tin foil, popped up on the same corner, in front of a bustling liquor store. It was evening now and dozens of people were getting off work. A couple young boys helped her take orders and translate English to Spanish while she reheated chicken and vegetable tamales. When asked how business was going, she said, "kind of good," with a shrug.

Around the block, a couple of intrepid grillers in front of a church cooked carne asada over mesquite, while a few food trucks competed for business and a long line of workers queued up -- 6 feet apart -- outside of a place to send money.

Around 7 p.m., the BSS investigators jumped in their cars and headed north along Alvarado, out of the neighborhood. Soon after, the secondhand vendors emerged from hiding while the food vendors on 8th Street served a modest crowd of masked locals. For a few minutes, before the sun dipped behind the buildings lining the lake, it felt like MacArthur Park again.