If you grew up in Los Angeles, you know that street food vendors are the lifeblood of our neighborhoods. In the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where I grew up, when the elotero came to our block, our family and friends would run outside to grab one of those cheese-slathered pieces of corn on the cob. It was the same when I would visit my dad over the hill in Little Armenia. As a kid, I didn’t necessarily know where these vendors lived, how much money they made, or where they sourced their ingredients. But as I’ve gotten older and lived longer in this city, I’ve come to realize that like many immigrant workers, street food vendors have been frequently mistreated.
Los Angeles street food vendors exist in a gray area: At times, they are allowed to operate while the city’s lawmakers and police look the other way. Other times, vendors are cited and their food setups are destroyed by LAPD in full view of the community. In recent years, the fight to decriminalize street vending has seen a few small victories, like the state’s Safe Sidewalk Vending bill, which came into effect in 2019, and the city’s (admittedly byzantine) permit program, which launched in 2018. While ostensibly helpful, these incremental steps do little to make it easier to acquire a permit. As is the norm in Los Angeles and many large cities across the nation, a group of marginalized people have become an important part of the city’s fabric, but are rarely offered any formal help.
On March 25, the City of Los Angeles installed a fence around Echo Park Lake, home to one of the city’s largest homeless encampments and also host to many vendors selling foods like pupusas, ice cream, and fresh fruit dusted with Tajín. Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who I’m running against in 2022 for the right to oversee District 13, ordered the encampment cleared and the park fenced up for “renovations.” LAPD oversaw the installation of a fence that stretches the length of the park; officers occupied Echo Park Lake and the surrounding neighborhood for three days while sanitation workers cleared the park of tents.
Over the last year and a half, a small but vocal group of Echo Park residents continually raised concerns about the encampment because it made the park “unenjoyable.” In response, O’Farrell had the LAPD displace the nearly 200 people in this unhoused community before fencing off the park for ongoing repairs — making it unusable for anyone.
I was one of the many local activists who showed up to try and stop the destruction of the encampment, but we were met by the LAPD, a militarized force. This is the same police force that killed my sister in July 2018 when they fired their guns into the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake while in pursuit of a suspect. So far, Councilmember O’Farrell has only asked that LAPD report damages and the estimated cost of renovations to the park, but has not publicly addressed the long-term effects of being forcibly removed from your home, as so many of the unhoused were. One of the many reasons I decided to run against O’Farrell is that I believe that you cannot displace unhoused people without offering them permanent housing. Not a shelter or a temporary hotel room — housing.
As for the park itself, no one knows yet what the full scope of renovations will be. If you regularly listen to City Council meetings, you might presume that the city will make it harder (if not impossible) for the Echo Park encampment to return. But make no mistake, an encampment will form again — if not within the park, then nearby. The solutions offered by the city, such as temporary hotel rooms and restrictive shelters, are not permanent housing. They are the same ineffective programs the city has used for decades, and those tactics (along with stagnant wages and rising rents) have only had one result: there are more people becoming homeless every year.
The city’s show of force against its unhoused residents at Echo Park Lake has had an additional consequence: Food vendors who relied on the crowds of locals and tourists lost a vital source of income when the park was fenced off. Dozens of vendors, selling everything from bacon-wrapped hot dogs to iced water bottles, can no longer set up to earn a living at the park. No thought was given to how their families would be affected; the city didn’t offer any assistance or even so much as a warning to residents and workers here. As of April 20, the park is still temporarily closed, with no reopening date set.
The closure of Echo Park is not an isolated incident. It is a blueprint for what’s to come if people don’t push back against anti-poverty biases. For the past year and a half, the encampment had flourished into its own community, and the food vendors were happily making money selling to its residents and residents of the surrounding neighborhood. Most of the vendors at Echo Park Lake had been there for a long time, and in a span of less than a week, they were told they couldn’t return to the park. Within a week, two marginalized groups were forcibly swept from Echo Park without deliberate consideration or solutions for where they would end up.
With the uptick of vaccinations for the general public, and businesses opening up once again, this summer was sure to be a big one for food vendors in Echo Park, who were relying on crowds coming back for leisurely afternoons outdoors. But now it’s back to uncertainty. If and when Echo Park reopens, it could be with a heavy police presence, as a deterrent to any new encampment starting and as a way to appease angry Echo Park homeowners who make their opinion known at every City Council meeting. And the question remains: in what capacity will food vendors be able to return to the park?
Each day, this city finds a way to not only erase some of its history but also harm its citizens. The soul of this city lies within its people, with the food they bring, with the vendors that offer sustenance to locals and tourists alike. If the people that make up Echo Park can be removed, so can the thriving culture of food and community in every other park and public space. The closure of Echo Park can be an aberration or the new norm, and it’s up to us to fight for what we believe is right.
Albert Corado is running for Los Angeles City Council District 13, which includes Echo Park, in 2022.