This essay will discuss illegal street vending in Los Angeles and how ethnographic data can shed new light on the reality of street vending and the laws prohibiting it. Los Angeles is the last of the USA’s major cities to still prohibit street vending, despite the prevalence of street vending on its streets (Vallianatos 2014).
Street vending is prohibited under Los Angeles Municipal Code 42. 0(b), and although some street vending is legal, such as licensed gourmet food trucks, this essay will focus on the largely impoverished group of vendors who operate without a permit and usually sell products from portable shopping carts (Bhimji 2010; 470). Illegal street vending is a $504 million industry, and is part of the larger informal economy in Los Angeles which can be defined as being,” comprised of economic activity that uses illegal means to produce legal products” (Lui, Burns and Flaming 2015: 4; Cross 2010: 32).
Other members of the informal economy would include day laborers or maids who are paid “under the table”, and hence there economic activity not formally regulated (Rosales 2013: 699). Street vending can be seen as one of the most visually accessible manifestations of the informal economy and some estimates have numbered the total amount of street vendors to be around 50,000 (Sarmiento 2015: 2). Street vendors are mostly of Latin American origin and are usually first or second generation immigrants (Chinchilla, Chinchilla and Hamilton 1996: 31).
For many, the presence of street vending in Los Angeles poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of the city and they advocate for even stricter enforcement to eliminate street vending, One major group that opposes legalized street vending is store owners who argue that street vendors create unfair competition for their businesses (Lo? pez-Garza and Diaz 2001: 220). They argue that because vendors don’t pay taxes and other legal expenses they can outprice the stores (Kettles 2004: 27).
Many are also weary of the health risks that the vendors could potentially pose to the public, since they do not operate under any health and safety regulations (Granda 2015). Many also argue that street vending will lead to what Hardin coined the, “tragedy of the commons”, which refers to his theory that the freedom for individuals to act economically rational in a shared communal area leads to the ruin of that area (Kettle 2004: 3; Hardin 1994: 1244).
Critics even argue that the prevalence of street vending can be linked to increased crime and in neighborhoods where vending is popular (Kettles 2004: 35). Some even view it as detrimental and antithetical to traditional American values and notions of modernity, as many see street vending to be premodern and associated with developing countries (Estrada and Hondagneu-Sotelo 2010: 2; Cross 2000: 30). Street vending has been prohibited in Los Angeles since the 1930’s, and is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1000 and 6 months imprisonment (Kettles 2004: 9).
Before the 1980’s, street vending was not a dominant issue for the city of Los Angeles, but during that decade there was massive surge in immigration from Central American nations, causing the Latino community to increase by approximately 62%, and the foreign born population of Los Angeles to increase to 40% of the overall population (ibid). This large influx of people and the economic conditions of the time meant there was also a large increase in informal economic activity, among which vending was very prominent since many immigrants brought traditions of street vending from their home country (Bhimji 2010: 465).
At first the police saw the street vendors as a low priority and only gave out citations when they received direct complaints but over time, due to increased pressure from storefront merchants, they began enforcing more stringently, with the year of 1990 seeing over 2700 arrests for illegal vending (Kettles 2004: 10). There have even been special taskforces set up by the city government to tackle street vending.
One such group was PACE (Pro-active Code Enforcement) which was very successful at clearing areas of street vendors through successively sever punitive measures, but the vendors were resilient and PACE did not have the resources to cover the whole city (ibid: 20). In 1992, after extensive lobbying from the Street Vendors Association, the city government voted in favor of drafting legislation that would allow the creation of special districts where vending would be allowed (Chinchilla, Chinchilla and Hamilton 1996: 33).
However it wasn’t until 1994 that any legislation was actually passed, and by 1995 only two of the proposed eight districts were near approval (ibid). One SSVD (Special Sidewalk Vending District) was finally set up in 1999 but it was largely unsuccessful and the project was finally terminated, leaving street vending prohibited one again (Estrada and Hondagneu-Sotelo 2010: 127). As noted above, the population of street vendors in Los Angeles is very prominent with some estimating that there are around 10,000 vendors on the streets of Los Angeles on any given ay (Munoz 2012: 2).
Vendors comprise of both men and women, with about 60% of vendors being female, and children even as young as 13 have been shown to engage in street vending to help support their families (Chinchilla, Chinchilla and Hamilton 1996: 31; Estrada and Hondagneu-Sotelo 2010: 103). They operate mostly in neighborhoods where the majority of the residents are Latin American and some may only receive as much as $20-$30 each day from vending (Kettles 2004 15).
Not all vendors are full time, and many use vending as a supplement to their income from another job, but for some it is their sole means of employment (Munoz 2012: 2). Since many of these vendors are immigrants, with approximately 60% being undocumented, they face discrimination from the formal economy and may lack the social capital, such as language ability and legal status, to compete in it (Kettles 2004: 23). Hence for them, remaining in the informal economy is worth the risk and many vendors find it preferable that they are able to work on their own terms (Chinchilla, Chinchilla and Hamilton 1996: 31).
The single SSVD that was set up was located at MacArthur Park, an already popular area for vending activity, however it failed to make any substantial impact on illegal vending and was shut down in 2004 (Sarmiento 2015: 8). The reason only one SSVD was created was due to the timely and complex bureaucratic process that was required to create an SSVD, which included among other things, the approval of 20% of both residents and businesses in the area and also the approval of the city council (ibid).
As well as the difficulty and time it took to actually create a district, the lengthy and costly procedures involved with actually gaining a permit to legally sell in the SSVD was off putting to many of the street vendors (Kettles 2004: 15). It could cost up to $5000 to acquire the proper cart, permit and insurance required by the city government, which was incredibly expensive for the group of largely impoverished street vendors (Bhimji 2010: 468).
There was also a four to six week waiting period for the permit during which prospective vendors had to attend various training courses, which was probably another contributing factor to why over a third of those who joined the program dropped out (Kettles 2004: 14-15). Many street vendors are also illegal immigrants and hence were unwilling to interact with the authorities (Sarmiento 2015: 8) It was also painfully obvious that the single SSVD could not have any impact on the thousands of illegal street vendors since it only provided 33 regulation arts, and in 2004 only had 100 members (ibid: 16).
Due to the lack of comprehensive law enforcement it essentially created two tiers of street vendors; a small minority of legal vendors and a large population of illegal vendors (Chinchilla, Chinchilla and Hamilton 1996: 33). Hence, it can be seen that the legalization attempt was ill-suited to the street vendors of Los Angeles, as for them it was the more economically rational option to remain as illegal street vendors rather than attempt to become legal ones.
The policy was unable to tackle the issue of street vending in Los Angeles and it was no surprise that it was abandoned shortly after its implementation. Referring back to the criticisms of street vending that are used to legitimize its prohibition, many of these views can be challenged and subverted with reference to ethnographic data. Firstly, considering the claim that street vendors pose as unfair competition, there is evidence suggesting that the vendors actively try to avoid competing with stores presence of street vendors can be economically beneficial for an area.
Ethnographic evidence shows that the vendors attempt to be good neighbors to the stores (Lui, Burns and Flaming 2015: 6). They try to respect the wishes of the stores, for example vendors who sold jewelry never sold in front of a jewelry store, and in general they attempt to avoid head to head competition (Kettles 2004: 24). Street vendors, because of their high visibility, also attract a lot of foot traffic that stores can benefit from (Lui, Burns and Flaming 2015: 12).
In fact it has been shown that local economies can even suffer when street vending is removed (Kettles 2004: 31). Secondly, the argument that food vendors pose a health risk to the public is a distorted argument as there is no reason that vendors should be any more of a hazard than a restaurant for instance(ibid: 39). Rosales (2013: 711), found that fruit vendors attempt to produce hygienic environments but due to the extremely high rental rates of sanitary commissary areas, they were often forced to prepare their fruit in imperfect conditions, such as in their backyard.
It is not in the vendor’s interest to be unhygienic and many emphasize their hygiene practices in order to legitimize themselves and attract customers (Bhimji 2010: 480). This is also linked to the argument that vendors will inevitably end up trashing the public spaces within which they operate. In fact, Kettles (2004: 33) argues that street vendors tend to be very conscientious about cleaning up after themselves as they know that their presence is precariously tolerated.
Again the street vendors found it more beneficial to take care of the areas which they sold in, especially since they often operate in the same area regularly and want to attract regular clientele (Bhimji 2010: 477). It also has been shown that the presence of street vendors actually function as crime deterrents as they are highly visible and create a surveillance effect in the areas they operate (Lui, Burns and Flaming 2015: 18).
They are also not any more likely to traffic stolen goods than stores, and are likely to be victims of crime such as extortion from local gangs, which they cannot report too police due to the illegal status of vending (Kettles 2004: 36; Munoz 2012: 14). It can be seen then that many of the criticisms of vending are seen illegitimately as belonging, or being exclusive to vending, and that in fact none of these criticisms are incompatible with its legalization and might even be resolved by legalization. That leaves the issue that many see street vending as being incompatible with modern American values.
Street vending has had a massive impact on the urban landscape of Los Angeles, providing a city notorious for its lack of public interaction with opportunities and new spaces for such interaction to occur (Chinchilla, Chinchilla and Hamilton 1996: 32). But the implementation of new cultural landscapes in such a diversely populated city should not be a reason to prohibit street vending and in fact, the sense of community it engenders should be seen as a positive effect, especially in impoverished areas. (Munoz 2012: 15; Bhimji 2010: 475).