Los Angeles, CA: Food Carts in Los Angeles Come Out of the Shadows

Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times Embracing Street Vending in Los Angeles: Decades of police crackdowns have failed to curb a widespread black market, so city officials are changing their strategy.

By Ian Lovett  | The New York Times

Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times Embracing Street Vending in Los Angeles: Decades of police crackdowns have failed to curb a widespread black market, so city officials are changing their strategy.
Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times
Embracing Street Vending in Los Angeles: Decades of police crackdowns have failed to curb a widespread black market, so city officials are changing their strategy.

LOS ANGELES — The dance plays out daily in MacArthur Park, Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and elsewhere across this sprawling metropolis: A lone police car rolls slowly past a popular corner, sending dozens of street vendors scrambling for cover, pushing tamale carts around corners and into the doorways of nearby shops.

But decades of police crackdowns have failed to curb this enormous illegal market. When the police vanish, the vendors move back into place, hawking sliced mangoes, DVDs, flowers, bicycles and more.

So now, Los Angeles officials are preparing to embark on a very different strategy: embracing street vending.

plan introduced last month in the City Council would legalize and regulate vendors, opening the door to the mouthwatering prospect of pork cheek street tacos that have the blessings of the county Health Department.

“Street vending is a fact of life around here,” said Jose Huizar, the city councilman behind the plan to legalize street food. “Los Angeles is good at some things, but we are behind the ball on others. We need regulations. The way it works right now, everyone loses.”

New York, Dallas and Seattle have already passed laws regulating street vending. But despite the ubiquity of “danger dogs,” the bacon-wrapped hot dogs that sizzle on sidewalk griddles outside Lakers games and concert venues, almost all street vending has remained entirely illegal here. (Food trucks, which have running water and other amenities, are legal and tightly regulated.)

Over the last several years, vendors — a huge portion of them immigrants from Latin America, many in the country illegally — have waged their most aggressive campaign yet for legal status on the city’s streets, modeling their effort on the national push to overhaul immigration laws.

As a result, the fight to legalize sidewalk peddlers goes beyond questions of commerce, offering a window on the larger debate about the place of immigrants in American culture.

Opposition to legalizing street vending remains fierce in some quarters of the city, where residents complain of blocked sidewalks, potentially unsafe food and streets littered with trash; some restaurant owners gripe that sidewalk businesses poach their customers.

“I teach my kids to wash their hands before they eat,” said Bob Richardson, a resident of East Rancho Dominguez, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County adjacent to Los Angeles, where street vending has become more common in recent years. “I don’t know what those people do before they serve the food. I believe it’s unsafe, and it should be outlawed.”

But the current efforts to legalize street vending is evidence of a shift in attitudes toward immigrants — and street food — here in the two decades since the last major push to legalize street vending two decades ago amid an anti-immigrant fervor in the state.

These days, food aficionados and Pulitzer Prize-winning critics debate which stand serves the best $1 tacos al pastor.

“For a long time in Los Angeles, the feeling was that street vending was a third world activity, not worthy of the Anglo version of Los Angeles that emerged in the mid-20th century,” said Mark Vallianatos, an instructor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College here, who has been part of the campaign to legalize street vending.

But Latinos now make up about half of the city’s population, and an estimated one in 10 residents of Los Angeles County are immigrants in the country illegally. Mayors past and present have called vigorously for federal immigration reform, and the police chief has publicized policy changes intended to reduce deportations of illegal immigrants arrested for minor crimes.

“Now, being pro-immigrant is a winner in L.A.,” Mr. Vallianatos said. “Street food has become hip and popular all over the city, not just with low-income Latinos. People are starting to see it as part of what makes our city great.”

The vendors have tried to frame their struggle as a fight for human dignity, drawing connections with the fight for an immigration overhaul.

Backed by some of the same groups involved in that effort, like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, they are invoking the same narrative of hardworking people who want to be able to support their families without fear of random arrests and deportation.

“We are just trying to make a living,” said Guadalupe Becerril, an unauthorized immigrant, as she sold crepes and pancakes on the patch of East Los Angeles sidewalk that her cart has occupied for 10 years.

Though Ms. Becerril said she has not been arrested, the police broke up the popular unlicensed street market where she used to work and have confiscated her entire business multiple times, she said.

“My dream is that they will let us be here legally,” Ms. Becerril said.

However, for Julia Catana, the manager of a nearby bakery, which is surrounded by tamale stands in the morning and a taco stand at night, vendors like Ms. Becerril are simply unfair competition.

“They take a lot of our clients,” Ms. Catana said. “They sell right in front of the store. They don’t have rent, so they can sell way cheaper.” Instead of legalizing the vendors, she said, the police should finally clear them off the sidewalk.

At Ricky’s Fish Tacos, a popular makeshift stand in a Chinatown parking lot, the prices, $2.50 per succulent taco, were only part of the appeal. Jonathan Schneller, a customer, said street food was a factor in his decision to move west from Washington.

“It’s a central piece of the culture in L.A.,” Mr. Schneller, a 32-year-old lawyer, said, his mouth full of fish that had been fried in the open air. “It’s a big part of the appeal of the city and the culture of the city.”

Mr. Huizar, who was born in Mexico and reared in Boyle Heights, said that legalizing street food would make it safer for consumers, because taco stands would be subject to inspections by the county Health Department. Income from city vending permits or fees could fund tougher police enforcement against illegal sellers, he said.

But he acknowledged the political challenges of winning support in the City Council. Some council members from districts where sidewalk peddlers are less prevalent have expressed interest in legalizing street food in some parts of the city, but not others.

Past attempts to legalize street vending failed because most of the vendors decided the regulations were too onerous, and they were better off staying on the black market.

Caridad Vazquez, an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico, has sold tacos and mulitas (cuts of beef or pork, served with cheese between two corn tortillas) on the street in Boyle Heights for a decade.

She has campaigned to be able to cook here legally, but said she did not want to move her business to a truck or restaurant.

Legally or not, she will be cooking at her sidewalk grill at sundown.

“I like selling on the street,” said Ms. Vazquez, 53.

“This is how we live in Mexico. Our people love coming out onto the street and smelling the food.”