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For Leimert Park Street Vendors, A Bumpy Road To Selling Legally — And Finally, Success

Two dancers, accompanied by drummers playing traditional instruments, perform before spectators seated in folding chairs at the Sunday African Marketplace & Drum Circle in Leimert Park. Vendors with various goods displayed under canopies are seen in the background.
A crowd watches drummers and dancers perform at the Sunday African Marketplace & Drum Circle in Leimert Park. The marketplace vendors were recently granted a permit to set up a community farmer’s market.
(Courtesy of Philip C. Kim )
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Visit Leimert Park’s African Marketplace on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll likely have a one-of-a-kind L.A. experience. You can buy Senegalese baskets, pounds of okra and amaranth, and nibble on vegan cobbler and Jamaican oxtails — all while enjoying the rhythms of a nearby drum circle.

For Leimert Park Street Vendors, A Bumpy Road To Selling Legally — And Finally, Success

One recent Sunday, Rochelle Vallery tried on a ring from one of the marketplace vendors. She's been coming to the African Marketplace for 20 years. It’s a place, she said, that allows her to be herself.

“It's my culture,” Vallery said, “and when you are able to relate to your culture without disturbance — it’s amazing.”

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Men and women perform in the drum circle at the Sunday African Marketplace & Drum Circle in Leimert Park.
Master drummer Pop Diouf (center) leads the drum circle at the Sunday African Marketplace & Drum Circle in Leimert Park.
(Courtesy of Philip C. Kim)

The marketplace has long helped local street vendors make a living. But as with most of L.A.’s street vendors, they worked informally until recently, when they organized to do business with a permit. That’s helped revitalize the longtime street market — and also turn it into a Sunday farmer’s market for the community.

But getting there wasn’t easy. The vendors had to deal with neighborhood complaints and city bureaucracy in getting things up and running, issues that many L.A. street vendors have faced.

Community ownership is also a big motivator for the market. Gentrification has pushed a lot of Black Angelenos out of the neighborhood, locals say.

And in May, a nearby Ralphs closed, leaving limited grocery options for the community.

“It's greater than just having the ability to set up in the street on a Sunday,” said Jenn Laurent, a community activist and legal assistant who has helped the vendors apply for permits and funding. “It's about survival.”

‘A New Phenomenon’

Local activist Billion Godsun is with the Africa Town Coalition, which fights the displacement of Black businesses. He recalls some of the vendors starting here back in the early 2000s.

“There was one brother that was out selling chips and sodas, another brother came, he started barbecuing,” he said. “The vending would go all the way around the dirt trail around the park, as the brothers and sisters were drumming and dancing.”

Several drummers perform at the Leimert Park African Marketplace & Drum Circle in Los Angeles, California.
Young women participate in the drum circle one recent Sunday at the African Marketplace & Drum Circle in Leimert Park.
(Courtesy of Phillip C. Kim)
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That scene changed, though, as the neighborhood did. Construction began on the Crenshaw/LAX Metro line. That and other projects took away parking and foot traffic. Street vendors would still set up in the park, but business was slow.

Then came the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis and people took to the streets everywhere, calling for racial justice.

Thousands flocked to Leimert Park for Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates when the last slaves in the U.S. were declared free. People also came to support Black businesses.

“There was an explosion, it was one of the biggest Juneteenths — seemed like 10,000 people out there,” Godsun said. “We were dealing with a new phenomenon. It just became like a big festival every Sunday.”

The Bumpy Road To Getting Permitted

But the renewed interest in the African Marketplace brought additional challenges.

Some residents and local merchants complained of trash and traffic. So the city said if the vendors wanted to sell, they had to get a permit. The city, which legalized street vending in late 2018, made permits available to street vendors last year.

One local street vendor, Mya Baker, is a filmmaker specializing in movies with an anti-violence message. She started selling custom t-shirts at the marketplace during the pandemic, and described the atmosphere as relaxed — until the vendors started hearing complaints from the city and local brick-and-mortar stores last year.

“The police were coming around giving everybody these papers to get vendor permits,” Baker said. “I just feel like every Sunday it’s always something.”

Patrons can buy Senegalese baskets and dresses and other African-inspired clothing, jewelry and housewares from vendors at Sunday’s African Marketplace.
(Courtesy of Philip C. Kim)

Laurent helped the local vendors organize into the Leimert Park Village Vendors Association, and navigate the permitting process as a group.

But it wasn’t easy. The biggest issue was the fee.

“Two hundred and ninety-one dollars might not be a lot to some people, but it might as well be $291 million for some of our street vendors,” she said.

It’s even more complicated if you’re a food vendor who also has to follow county health regulations, which includes obtaining a county health permit, among other things.

Laurent secured a farmers’ market permit from the city in April that would close off the block to cars on Sundays, and permission from the county to let the food vendors sell as part of the event. This, she said, protected the vendors as they continued to navigate the county health permit process.

What happened next is a point of contention. Laurent said City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area, tried to revoke the farmers' market permit, citing compliance issues.

Ridley-Thomas denies this, saying his goal was to make compliance clear for the vendors and anyone else who wants to do business in Leimert Park in the future.

“What we are doing is getting to the bottom of, ‘What are the rules of the road?’” he told us. "So that not only can the African Marketplace — but any other entity that's interested in celebrating culture and commerce in the Leimert Park village — do so in the most effective and hassle-free manner."

A Farmer’s Market For The Community

Finally, in June, the Leimert Park Village Vendors Association got to move forward, with a farmers' market permit from the city that's good for one year.

Challenges remain. The vendors have had to cover costs associated with hygiene, cleanup and safety compliance, such as private event security, by themselves.

Like other street vendors who've struggled with city rules, the Leimert Park vendors have learned that the road to doing business legally can be a bumpy one. Many of the local food vendors are still navigating the county permitting process. They also fear the terms of their city permit changing again.

Gyasi Imhotep sells crocheted goods at the marketplace. She says vendors like her want to follow the law, but they don’t want so much regulation that the marketplace loses its special character.

“We don't want the fingerprint of Africa taken off of here,” Imhotep said.

But organizers of the African Marketplace organizers have also received a lot of community support, including donations to help cover vendors’ permit fees and other costs. They're now looking to grow the Sunday event, inviting other musicians to perform and a yoga teacher to lead free community sessions.

Two men, one seated and one standing, behind an exotic produce stand at the Leimert Park’s Sunday African Marketplace.
At one produce vendor stand, Darin Imani Diggs (seated, far right) sells exotic produce to customers at the Leimert Park’s Sunday African Marketplace. He said his goal is to provide fresh food to the community, and connect people their culture.
(Courtesy of Phillip C. Kim)

They’ve also invited Black farmers like Darin Imani Diggs to bring healthy food to the community. For Diggs, who sells exotic produce, it’s an opportunity to connect people with their culture.

“I had a woman today, she was like, ‘Oh my god, I haven't had a coconut like this since I was 4, back when I lived in Guyana.’ And I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said.

It’s that connection that all the vendors hope will keep people coming back every weekend.

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