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New East LA Open-Air Market Provides Pathway to Street Vendor Legalization

The inaugural weekend at the Ramona Gardens housing project bodes well for the future

Mercado Olympic
Mercado Olympic, Downtown
Paul Bartunek
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

Last weekend may have marked a watershed moment for street food legalization in Los Angeles, though not in the way many folks anticipated. As the Los Angeles Times details in a strong piece from the weekend, the arrival of an open-air market in East L.A.’s Ramona Gardens housing project offers big promise for things to come.

For quite some time, a de facto market existed at Ramona Gardens Park to provide low cost food and other items to the neighborhood, though the entire endeavor was technically illegal. After many rounds of ticketing and confiscation from police — an all-too-common occurrence in the street food world — the vendors there decided to collectivize in hopes of working with the city on a solution for all.

The result is the official Ramona Gardens Swap Meet, which the Times describes as the "first legal open-air market at a Los Angeles housing project, and a model that some people hope can be replicated across the city." They’re certainly not wrong.

A street food vendor in the summer pushes a cart along a sandy path near a park lake. Farley Elliott

Street food is an important part of the overall culinary fabric of Los Angeles, and helps to underpin the city’s already vibrant dining scene. Many vendors also operate in unincorporated or underserved neighborhoods, making them a vital link to entire communities in need of dining options both day and night.

With the Ramona Gardens Swap Meet, the hope is that vendors will be able to start moving out of the marginalized shadows to work with city officials on creating safe spaces to sell their wares. In this case, vendors worked with the popular LA Voice to help bring that vision to life, but other community organizations have also begun cropping up across the county to address the same issues. They worked in part to bring grants to those in need, in order to purchase necessary health code-compliant items like sinks and covers for their food.

All that said, Los Angeles still has a ways to go to address the myriad issues affecting vendors across the county. But with pressure on City Hall to act, an increased sense of collaboration amongst all involved can only lead to good things.