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With LA Now Dining ‘Alfresco,’ What Happens to Criminalized Street Food Vendors?

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The city once again outlawed vendors at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but now with outdoor dining the new mandate, it’s unclear if they’ll be treated the same as everyone else

Street vendor on 6th and Bonnie Brae in Los Angeles
A street food vendor in Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee
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 Friday, Los Angeles city mayor Eric Garcetti announced LA Alfresco, a new outdoor dining initiative meant to help restaurants increase their available footprint for diners while keeping the public out in the open air. The evening announcement came on the same day that county officials declared greater Los Angeles dining rooms, after months of lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, once again open for business.

So with restaurants able to seat customers, and diners encouraged to eat outside as a measure against potentially contracting COVID-19, there remains a simple question: What happens to street vendors now?

Los Angeles’s history with street vending is, in large part, a history of racist anti-vendor propaganda, of criminalization and police enforcement, and of leaving tens of thousands of Angelenos in the murk — predominantly women of color — with no clearly accessible path towards obtaining a sought-after vending permit after all these years. Even after then-governor Jerry Brown legalized street vending statewide in 2018, followed by local legalization and licensing, plenty of vendors today describe an archaic system beset with challenges. Many continue to be given conflicting information on things as simple as where to apply, how to apply, and even the size and shape of the carts they’ll be able to use.

After two years of nominal legalization, there are fewer than 400 approved permits to sell on the streets (food and non-food) citywide, in a county with roughly 40,000 vendors. Even during a global pandemic that has seen unemployment in the tens of millions and 80 percent of LA’s restaurant industry out of work, the city has not been able to find a way to allow street food families to make money to survive. “We’ve lost our livelihood,” one vendor told LA Times co-critic Patricia Escárcega recently.

Less than two months ago, the Los Angeles City Council approved a motion from councilmember Monica Rodriguez that effectively banned vending citywide, by asking the Los Angeles Police Department and Bureau of Street Services to increase enforcement against anyone operating without a legal permit to do so. Historically, involving police in vendor enforcement issues in Los Angeles has led primarily to citations and arrests, which then leads potentially to deportation.

“Los Angeles has never done right by its vendors,” said Nithya Raman, candidate for Los Angeles City Council in District 4, in an op-ed on Eater LA in April.

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

A much-discussed aspect of mayor Garcetti’s LA Alfresco initiative has been the speed and the cost, with the city government assuring restaurants that they would be able to “immediately” begin seating diners in public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots, after submitting a free application. In the county’s recently-released guidelines in reopening restaurants, outdoor dining is “prioritized... as allowed by local zoning and planning codes.”

Meanwhile, street vendor licenses cost over $500 to start, and even then there are often multiple hurdles to jump through to be in compliance not only with the business vending permits, but associated health permits and regulations that dictate the type of carts that can be used. Vendors cited for serving customers without a permit are fined anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per infraction.

Even legal vendors like star taquero Walter Soto of El Ruso in Boyle Heights are often targeted by police and locals alike. Despite being positively reviewed in the LA Times and considered among the best places to eat in Los Angeles in 2020, a second location of Soto’s El Ruso stand was the site of harassment just days ago, when an unidentified white male in Highland Park told the group to move their street setup, or face consequences. “Don’t come here tomorrow. We can make it difficult,” an unnamed male says on video captured by Soto. He has since moved out of the area, and is unsure of where he will park his second trailer next, reports LA Taco.

Eater reached out to councilmember Monica Rodriguez’s office last Friday to discuss the current moratorium on vending that was put forth by her office. After repeated attempts, Rodriguez’s office has not responded. At time of publication, Eater has also not heard from the mayor’s office, or from councilmembers Gil Cedillo or Mitch O’Farrell, who represent areas like Highland Park and Hollywood, respectively. O’Farrell in particular has been a vocal opponent of street food vending in high-visibility parts of his district, banning vendors on the Walk of Fame since 2018.

Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s office did respond to a request for comment regarding a possible rescinding of the street vending moratorium, saying that they are “looking to rescind” the action taken by the council. A rep for Buscaino, which helped the mayor’s office to roll out the LA Alfresco initiative by putting public streets dining on display last Friday, tells Eater that “vendors need to get back to work too, as much as the restaurants. They shouldn’t be distinguished from each other,” adding: “The vendors are literally getting the least assistance. This is the whole point of legitimizing street vending, there are people who are literally feeding their families.”