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Sidewalk Vendors Tell City Hall: Legalize Us!

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Tacos, hot dogs and cell phone cases are what comes to mind when we think of our mostly-beloved street vendors in Los Angeles, but last night at City Hall some claimed that vendors only bring trash, feces and prostitution.

"We don't want street vendors in Sun Valley," said Mike O'Gara, vice-president of the San Fernando Valley neighborhood's local council. He claims they "set up at night, stay open until two in the morning and attract an undesirable element into our neighborhood," he said. Instead of legalizing vendors, he said, "we want more police enforcement."

O'Gara was resoundingly booed at the third in a four-part series of public hearings put on by the city's Economic Development Committee as part of a much-stalled effort to legalize and regulate the more than 50,000 street vendors that currently operate illegally in Los Angeles. About 1 in 5 of those vendors sell food, no item more famous—and contra the city's health-conscious kale-shake image—than the bacon-wrapped hot dog, found wherever there is a hungry drunk outside of a bar.

Cooking that staple of late-night L.A. comes with the risk of up to $1,000 in fines, however, and in some cases it's even led to jail time. Vendors also complain that when they are stopped by police they typically lose everything they have from the items they are selling to the cart they are selling them from.

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"We don't want to get harassed by the cops," Mariposa Rosales told the city staff who were there to receive the public's testimony.

"I've been a street vendor for over 25 years and I'm here to let you know that we're not criminals," she told the staff of the city council's Economic Development Committee, which put the hearings together. Rosales said she's trying to make an honest living—to keep a house over her family's head in the country's least affordable housing market—but she and her daughter "wake up every day thinking about...if we're going to be treated like crap or not."

Members of the public were invited to provide input on three possible directions the city could go in when it comes to street vending: 1) Maintain the status quo, which forbids selling food or goods on all sidewalks, all the time; 2) Legalize street vending across the city; or 3) Allow local communities to craft their own rules. The vast majority of speakers—mostly women, almost all speaking in Spanish—called for full legalization (for those who weren't there, the city has an online survey to fill out).

Many spoke of how street vending is one of the few opportunities available to them. "We are there because we don't have work," said Carla Vasquez. "There is no work for people over 50 years. We are not criminals."

The criticism is that there are too many of these people, their unlicensed businesses bring trash and unwelcome competition to brick-and-mortar establishments, which complain their tax-and-rent burden places them at a disadvantage. Nicole Shahenian, vice president of governmental affairs at the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said they also get in the way. "Hollywood Boulevard is already struggling with an overabundance of mobile food cars, CD vendors, street characters [and] tour bus solicitors," she said. "We cannot afford the increase in the number of street vendors that legalization of sidewalk vending would undoubtedly bring."

Some also maintain that street vendors are commercializing the commons, exploiting public space for private gain. On Tuesday, 24 hours before the latest public hearing on the subject, that latter critique was one of several used to justify the reinstatement of a ban on vendors operating without a permit at parks and beaches, with the City Council voting 13-2 to make repeat offenders subject to criminal charges.

In 2010, a federal court struck down a similar ban, ruling it a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly; the latest ban includes an exemption for selling their own works of art. Vendors complain it's a violation of their right to make a living, however, and for many here in L.A. the misdemeanor charges that could come with violating the ban threaten not just the entrepreneurial "American Dream," but their ability to even live in the United States.

"Selling paletas—those are popsicles—selling paletas at a park should not carry a penalty that bars you from citizenship," Gil Cedillo, one of the two councilmen to vote against the ban, said during the debate.

Vendors can still apply to get a permit, at least in theory. In practice, however, "The existing processes for allowing park vending are geared toward large concessions, such as the boathouse café at Echo Park Lake," as the Los Angeles Times noted in its report on the vote. The bigger the business, the easier it is to do business, in other words. Complaints about the commercialization of public space were rather muted, recall, when Mayor Eric Garcetti handed over Grand Park to Jay-Z and his "Made in America" festival.

At the hearing, an elderly woman wiped tears from her eyes as her lawyer translated for her in English how she had been given seven tickets and dozens of hours of community service for selling food without a permit. Rosemary Molina, an organizer with the Clean Carwash Campaign, said she knows a man whose hours were cut at a local carwash, forcing him to turn to street vending just to survive. "He was arrested," she said, "and is now in deportation proceedings."

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Stories like that didn't sway Cindy Sower, a small business owner and member of the Sun Valley neighborhood council. She said that not only do vendors in her area "throw trash all over," but they attract sex workers. "The prostitutes come around to a particular area at night to take advantage of customers. We have feces in our planters outside our business," she said. "I don't have sympathy for them coming into my business area at night."

Other women said the presence of vendors on the streets at night made them feel safer. However, Jesse Torrero, another member of the Sun Valley neighborhood council as well as co-director of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said the foot traffic vendors generate is the unseemly variety. "I gotta tell ya, the stuff that we see going on at night when we go on our volunteer patrol—it's amazing what happens," he said. Vending "creates an undue amount of traffic late at night," he testified, and "prostitutes and pimps are constantly hanging around this."

But outside of Sun Valley, most people appeared to associate street vendors with food and immigrants trying to make a living. "Street food is part of L.A.'s culinary culture and landscape and we need to promote it with pride, not punish or criminalize it," said Sophia Cheng with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a nonprofit that organizes and advocates for food workers. Also, I was just surprised—an earlier commentator said vending attracts "undesirable elements,"including prostitutes, pimps and feces. Well, I actually eat a lot of street food, I go to Echo Park...and I don't see any of that."

Charles Davis is a writer whose work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, The New Republic and Salon. Follow him on Twitter and read more from him on his website.