Fear and Vending in L.A.

Some fifty thousand Los Angelenos make their living slinging everything from watches to watermelons, yet are deemed criminals. One activist is determined to legalize their trade.

Fear and Vending in L.A.

On a muggy July evening in South Los Angeles, Janet Favela stands at the front of a dimly lit room. A loose black tee, translucent with stripes, hangs just below her curvy hips. As she fiddles with her laptop, Favela appears serious, hunched over a glowing screen. But then she looks up, scanning the dozen faces quietly awaiting her instructions, and smiles from behind her dark-rimmed glasses, soft dark curls and creamy olive skin. Suddenly, Favela’s rigidity seems to melt away like that pesky last patch of ice in early spring.

At six p.m., the humidity is oppressive. South Main Street is lined with litter amidst the boxy buildings, their windows barred by metal in this low-income neighborhood. Inside the offices of a community-based initiative called TRUST South LA, half a dozen bicycles linger in a far corner. The floor is dotted with a rainbow of tiny dried pieces of gum. Two rickety fans provide the only reprieve for the dozen men and women braving the heat to meet with Favela tonight. Outside the building, a mural reads, “LEGALIZE STREET VENDING!”

Listo?” Favela asks, scanning the room. Ready?

An estimated 50,000 street vendors operate in Los Angeles, but all of them are, by law, criminals. Walk down South Alvarado Street and you’ll see a man pulling a cart loaded with plastic cones of yellow popcorn. Not far from Grand Park, a young woman with choppy black hair slices up watermelon, pineapple, honeydew, cucumber and cantaloupe, and then, with a sweep of a shimmering knife, pushes the wedges into a plastic to-go box. At an intersection in Boyle Heights, two women hang clothing off the ends of a sharp wire fence.

L.A. has 3.5 million immigrants, and its population is 48.3 percent Latino. Many of these men and women turn to street vending — primarily because of the low start-up costs and skill level needed — earning just $10,000 per year. But these tens of thousands of vendors work outside the formal economy. According to Section 42 of the city’s municipal code, “No person … shall on any sidewalk or street offer for sale … any goods, wares or merchandise which the public may purchase at any time.” Among the country’s top ten largest cities, L.A. is the only one where street vending is illegal. As urbanites across the country enjoy the cheap pleasures of street food, the vendors of Los Angeles are forced to operate in the shadows.

Fried items enclosed in bags hang from a cart on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The woman who runs this stand faces a fine and was recently incarcerated for street vending.
Fried items enclosed in bags hang from a cart on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The woman who runs this stand faces a fine and was recently incarcerated for street vending.

Favela is leading the charge to change L.A.’s vending law. At thirty-two, she carries herself with poise, although her tireless passion exudes a sort of youthfulness. Speaking with a gentle urgency, Favela’s good intentions seem etched into her big brown eyes, even when her tone flips to stern. She is the main community organizer — and, until recently, the only full-time organizer — devoted to this cause. Her employer, the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), funds most of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, she explains. There’s not enough money or resources. “It’s only me,” she says, noting that other non-profits, like the Leadership Urban Renewal Network and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, support the campaign but don’t have enough resources to employ full-time activists like Favela.

Because the campaign needs more voices in order to be heard, Favela spends time on the streets, recruiting vendors to the cause and talking with them about their day-to-day experiences. She holds weekly meetings in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, like South L.A. and Boyle Heights, and attends town halls, neighborhood council meetings and local rallies. She spends most of her time talking to vendors about what they want from a new law. “We’re pushing for a policy that comes from vendors,” she says.

Favela has worked as a full-time employee for ELACC since 2007, but her passion for helping low-income communities — and street vendors in particular — began much earlier. When Favela was a girl, her father was laid off after working at a factory for fifteen years. He didn’t vend on a regular basis, but there were two periods when he did take to the streets to get by: when Favela was a young child, and then again in her early teens. “I grew up helping him sell watermelons. He drove his truck to Bakersfield and we hit the street,” she recalls. “Those are the things people do in order to make their families survive and, ideally, thrive.” Favela says her parents helped support her higher education; she graduated from University of California, Davis in 2005 with a degree in history and Chicana studies.

Tonight, Favela is meeting with a workgroup of local vendors. They’re forming a strategy and discussing the hurdles they’ll need to overcome, which are plentiful. Opponents to the campaign have reasonable and valid concerns, worrying about litter, public health, gangs, crime and an already tight state budget.

This battle won’t be an easy one.

The campaign has gained some momentum over the past year. In November 2013, two members of the L.A. City Council — Jose Huizar and Curren Price — introduced a motion to legalize street vending. They asked the Economic Development Committee to review it and report back in ninety days. Favela says that timeline was pushed back until May 2014. Then, on May 13, Councilman Price — also the committee chair — postponed the review another ninety days, saying more information was needed. That date has since come and gone. (Most recently on December 2, the committee met again to review the vending proposal, ultimately sending it back to the chief legislative analyst and delaying any formal decision.) Even after it’s reviewed, the vending proposal will need a majority vote — both from the Economic Development Committee and then again from the whole City Council — to become law.

Favela interacts with a street vendor and encourages her to attend a community meeting for street vendors' rights.
Favela interacts with a street vendor and encourages her to attend a community meeting for street vendors’ rights.

But why now? Why has the outcry to legalize vending finally reached its boiling point? Maybe it’s because the unemployment rate in Los Angeles County is unusually high — as of August 2014, it’s 8.1 percent. That’s higher than the entire state of California (7.4 percent), and higher than New York City (7.7 percent). The chief legislative analyst’s office recently reported that street vending has spiked since the 2007 economic crisis. Vendors also appear to be more diverse, including laid-off professionals, single moms and war veterans, as well as more twenty and thirty-somethings.

It’s Favela’s intimacy with this local vendor population that has been crucial in shaping the proposal. Each vendor has a story, and Favela has collected hundreds of them. She knows a man in his sixties who was hospitalized for two months and then went immediately back out on the street to hawk his goods. “But I need to work,” he explained to Favela. He hadn’t fully recovered, so a few young men in the neighborhood began helping him out, carrying his supplies. “He’s so fucking resilient,” she says.

But Favela is also familiar with vendors like Doña Lina, a woman whose husband passed away, sending her into a deep depression. “Street vending got her out of it,” Favela explains. But each time Doña Lina’s coolers are taken away, she falls into another brief period of angst. She knows a vendor whose young daughter wets her pants even when they are selling — legally — at a farmer’s market because she associates vending with fear, the police and a sad necessity: having to pack up and flee. Favela also knows a female vendor who says she was harassed by the police. In front of a large crowd, she says an officer yelled out that she had AIDS — a lie — just to embarrass her and force her to leave.

One of tonight’s meeting attendees, an African-American vendor named TJ Loftin, sporting a dark patchy beard, says he’s never been threatened or chased out by the police. “Your average police officer doesn’t have time to bother a street vendor,” Loftin says. “Cars are being stolen, drugs are being sold, some child is being kidnapped. They don’t have time to go harass someone trying to take care of families.”

Yet Favela says harassment or arrest is a reality for many vendors, and the police have various attitudes — some lenient, some harsh — toward vendors. Either way, it seems the LAPD doesn’t always enforce vending laws. Three officers recently testified to the city council that the issue is a lack of resources. Still, between July 2013 and March 2014, 286 citations were given out to street vendors, each of which could result in up to $1,000 in fines or possibly jail time. The department also reported approximately 2,000 arrests of street vendors since 2012. Even though the risk of fine or arrest is fairly rare, it’s still real.

One hundred years ago, vendors didn’t have to worry about the police. Back then, vending was legal in L.A., and foot peddlers could pay a fee to sell merchandise from a stand or the sidewalk. The prohibition of street vending began in 1930, when the city banned vending on sidewalks downtown and in major business areas. In 1974, the L.A. city council approved a ban on all vending, which the mayor then vetoed, saying, “I believe we need to encourage, not discourage, the creation of new small-business enterprises.” By 1980, the city finally got its way, banning all citywide street vending. Favela believes the decision was rooted in anti-vendor sentiments beginning in the ’70s. By 1980, a spike in Central American immigrants led to more street vending. Since then a few attempts have been made to change this law, but none have stuck.

Janet Favela, street vendors' fiercest advocate.
Janet Favela, street vendors’ fiercest advocate.

Maybe that’s because not everyone is as passionate about street vending as Favela. Jessica Lall, executive director of the South Park Business Improvement District, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of the area’s property holders, believes legal street vending is a bad idea. “We all know the city is pretty tight on resources. We haven’t really seen anything in terms of how much it would cost,” she says. “Thinking [the budget for enforcement] is just going to come from permit costs, without seeing an economic analysis, seems naive. And assuming vendors are going to register and pay taxes without strict enforcement is probably unlikely.” The city administrator is currently drawing up a plan to estimate these numbers, but back in 1992, a report said that additional funding — used to pay city employees to regulate and enforce a citywide street vending program — would cost $1.1 million for just six months. More than twenty years later, the funding needed is likely much greater.

Lall isn’t just worried about money, though. She’s worried about poorly prepared food that could get people sick, trash and litter attracting vermin, and small business owners who put their whole life savings into the city’s expensive process of getting alcohol and dining permits. “It’s not just the issue of the carts,” Lall explains. “It’s the safety issues — people getting sick from the food, disposing of the food in alleys. Food will attract vermin.”

Robert Frommer, who works for the Institute for Justice’s National Street Vending Initiative, says the point of the law is not to protect certain businesses over others. “The government’s role is supposed to be protecting public health and safety,” he says. “Most of the time, the criticism about vending, when you peel everything away, comes down to protectionism. ‘I have a brick and mortar restaurant,’ or ‘I’m a florist,’ and ‘How dare you let these people come out and sell flowers on Mother’s Day or hot dogs on the corner?’”

But there’s another challenge: Even local vendors can be skeptical about joining the campaign. Worried about plainclothes cops, many vendors often don’t feel comfortable giving out their name or information, or give out fake information. Plus, those vendors who do commit to the movement can be hard to track down. Many don’t have cell phones or only have prepaid disposable phones. They don’t have a permanent office space; their location changes each day. “We’re working with a population where we lose phone numbers and access,” Favela says. As a result, the campaign faces a real challenge in garnering more support.

Favela furrows her brow and says, “We’ve been pushing your rights, but now it’s up to you to push the movement as a group.” Its nearing eight p.m., and the bikes now look like shadowy limbs. Dusk — or the heat — has left attendees looking sleepy and fatigued.

Not Favela. She’s still all pep and energy. But now, there is something raw in her tone. “I’m gonna put a little more pressure on you,” she adds, peering around the room. “It’s easy to show up for the meeting.” She writes some statistics on a pad set atop a large easel:

– 2,500 petition signatures
– 400 residents organized
– 300 vendors organized
– 600 small business owners engaged
– 300 letters sent to city council
– Met with twelve city council officers

“What do you think we need to pass this law?” Favela asks. “Do you think something is missing?”

No one stirs.

“We have people, but do you think we have enough people?” Favela asks.

A quiet older man in a white tee, Julio, finally speaks up: “We need 20,000 vendors.”

The room is still sweltering. A few folks get up to refill their Dixie cups with ice water.

“How do we recruit more people?” asks Favela.

“In the streets!” a woman replies.

“We can hand out fliers,” says a dark-haired woman named Marina.

“Going door to door is too much work,” another attendee chimes in, exasperated.

“What about clients?” one man asks. “They support us by buying stuff.”

A street vendor's notepad, in which she keeps track of her sales and popular items.
A street vendor’s notepad, in which she keeps track of her sales and popular items.

Favela says this is what organizing is all about: relationship-building. “We believe as organizers that everybody can be a leader. It’s really about getting to know people and understand people — the stuff they’re naturally good at and then the stuff they need to grow — and then pushing them.” She admits it isn’t always a seamless process. “Sometimes [vendors] are like, ‘Oh, I’m only representing myself because I’ve always had to take care of myself on the streets.’ It’s very important to create unity, and sometimes in a chaotic environment. My personality can feel a little silly, but we have to have serious moments where we get down to work. This is a large movement. All of us rise or all of us fall.”

A man named Hugo with ballooning arm muscles under his collared shirt says, “I think you have to show urgency and passion.”

“You have to show that passion,” Favela says. “Tell them, ‘We’re gonna win.’”

The air outside is finally beginning to cool beneath a bruised sky.

“The ordinance is one thing but it isn’t everything,” Favela confesses. “This is just a tool we’re trying to use in order to fight for vendor rights to survival. It’s not O.K. to crush small entrepreneurs.”