Street vending isn't just ubiquitous in Los Angeles. It's a half-billion-dollar industry, according to a 2015 report by non-profit research organisation Economic Roundtable.
Street vending, or hawking, can no longer be dismissed by policymakers and privileged residents as an underground economy, or an aberration, or a burden to the nation's second-largest city. It is, economically and geographically, at the heart of the Los Angeles experience and economy. But the state, county and city have yet to figure out how to govern this fact of LA life, to the detriment of the 50,000 micro-entrepreneurs involved in street vending.
Some of them sell merchandise, such as clothing and mobile phone accessories. Others -- an estimated 10,000 -- sell food, like fresh fruit, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and tamales. These sellers are deeply interconnected and interdependent with the city's formal economy: They purchase supplies from other businesses and spend their income elsewhere, providing tax revenues for local, state and federal government. Street vending, and its related small purchases, sustain 5,234 jobs in Los Angeles, according to that Economic Roundtable report.
These impacts have been 150 years in the making. In Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, journalist Gustavo Arellano, citing a 19th-century Los Angeles Herald article, traced tamaleros selling tamales from wagons as far back as the 1870s. And in Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks, food writer Farley Elliott documented the city's initial attempts to regulate street vending, which not only included Mexicans, but also Chinese vendors: "By the 1890s, there were city government-sanctioned attempts to either severely limit or curb these tamaleros altogether, by restricting either their movement or their window for being able to sell," he writes. These initial enforcement efforts failed due to the popularity of street food, a pattern that continues today.
By the 1980s, LAPD officers were conducting regular sweeps of street vendors to deny them access to public sidewalks and street corners. Immigrants' rights advocates and street vendor leaders pushed back, which led to a 1994 city ordinance that instituted a two-year pilot programme, with street vending districts throughout the city. Only one district was ever created, and the programme proved a failure. This inaction resulted in the further criminalisation of street vendors, who faced a constant -- but unevenly enforced -- threat of fines, tickets and confiscation of their equipment and goods.
After a major LAPD crackdown on vendors in 2008, a group of community leaders began to organise. They brought together a coalition of legal, immigrants' rights and food justice organisations to fight back against the draconian and anti-immigrant attacks. They eventually launched the Los Angeles Street Vendors Campaign to pursue the legalisation of their business, and in 2018, they secured major policy victories.
The biggest of those: state legislation decriminalising and legalising street vending throughout California. This law also eliminated previous charges and convictions for street vending, and provided immediate protection to tens of thousands of immigrant entrepreneurs and workers in the informal economy.
At the same time, the legislation provided a foundation for local reform. California cities were forced to remove their criminal bans, and most established first-ever permitting programmes for legal street vending, including Los Angeles. In November 2018, LA City Council formally rescinded the criminal ban on street vending and adopted a set of rules and regulations for legal vending on sidewalks and in parks, requiring vendors to obtain a city permit last year.
Yet many food vendors remain mired in the informal economy. The Community Economic Development Clinic at the UCLA School of Law recently analysed the Los Angeles permitting process and found it to be riddled with barriers.
The combined costs for permits, inspection fees, commissary leases and code-compliant equipment can total tens of thousands of dollars. There are no standardised cart design blueprints or operating procedures that vendors can utilise to procure a code-compliant cart from a manufacturer. Commissaries -- facilities used for food preparation and equipment cleaning and storage -- are scarce.
The largest barriers, however, stem from equipment design standards developed with food trucks, not smaller scale carts, in mind. In one example, following state and LA Department of Health requirements would yield a 320-kilogramme taco cart larger than most sidewalks; another example would require a hot dog vendor to have refrigerated space to store 6,000 hot dogs. The state requires most carts to include a three-compartment sink, adding considerable weight, size and cost.
The state retail food code also creates barriers, including prohibiting the slicing of whole fruits at a vending cart and keeping most pre-cooked meats hot-to-order. This has led to a de facto ban on the legalisation of two iconic LA cart vendors: fresh fruit and tacos.
Rather than eliminating the police crackdowns of previous decades, in some ways the new rules have given law enforcement another means of intimidation and criminalisation. Police officers, code enforcement or health officers from the county and city (often armed) enforce these impossible rules, resulting in expensive tickets, fines and property confiscation. This hurts vendors, excluding them from the formal economy, and consumers -- who want to safely enjoy LA's renowned street food.
This ongoing battle illustrates the paradoxical dimensions of local governance. Our laws and regulations exclude many of the same people who make public spaces safe, lively and inclusive. Government leaders say they want permanent businesses and temporary ones, but make existence difficult for both.
These paradoxes can be resolved, and the state and county can develop legislation that balances economic opportunity and public health. Los Angeles, too, needs innovative strategies to support vendors -- including improving working conditions and providing entrepreneurial opportunities -- to fully integrate them into life and business here. Ultimately, recognising the significance of the informal vending economy will create better, healthier lives for the tens of thousands of low-income individuals (most of whom are immigrants with roots in Mexico, Central and South America) and families who work on the streets of LA And the entire region will reap -- and eat -- the benefits. ©ZÓCALO PUBLIC SQUARE
Álvaro Huerta, Ph.D., is associate professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a Religion and Public Life Organizing Fellow (2021–2022) at Harvard Divinity School. Victor Narro, J.D., is project director at UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and core faculty at UCLA Labor Studies Program. Doug Smith, J.D., M.A., is supervising senior staff attorney at Public Counsel and co-teaches the Community Economic Development Clinic at UCLA School of Law.