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Illegal Fireworks Crackdown in L.A. Has Chinatown Rattled

Illegal Fireworks Crackdown in L.A. Has Chinatown Rattled
Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

City Attorney Mike Feuer announced Friday a crackdown on the sale of fireworks across the city. Since June 20, his office, in conjunction with the Fire Department, Port Police, and Department of Street Services, has filed four criminal cases against shop owners in Chinatown and the Toy District, confiscating 1,000 pounds of fireworks and levying tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

"We will prosecute those in violation to the full extent possible," Feuer warned at the June 27 press conference. "And we still have a week before the Fourth, so I'd urge any seller [of illegal fireworks] to think seriously about stopping."

Apparently that message has gotten through.

The Weekly checked in at about 30 different shops and stalls (including some we knew from past experience used to carry the contraband). We asked if they had any fireworks we could take a look at - and found no takers. Most shop owners gave a curt "NO!" or "I don't know about any fireworks!" Everyone seemed on edge; one man even shouted to get out of his shop.

Was it because of the crackdown?

One owner, who asked not to be named, said yes, explaining,"The police raided Chinatown last week. The guy's shop across the street got nailed... I don't think you'll find anything."

It's a big change for Chinatown.

Back in the early aughts, when I was in high school in the L.A. suburbs, my friends and I never had to ask at more than five or six Chinatown shops before hitting paydirt. Even though the sale of fireworks has been illegal in Los Angeles since 1942, it never seemed to deter enterprising shop owners from dishing the goods.

"Excuse me," we'd say. "Do you sell... [lowered voice] ...fireworks?"

The shop owners would study us for a moment and look with suspicious eyes before leading us to the secret stash. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to which places gave up the goods. In Chinatown Plaza and Dynasty Pavilion, we once visited a baby clothes store, a luggage shop, and a sword emporium. In the luggage shop, the store attendant pulled down a suitcase from one of the top racks. When she opened it, it was filled to the brim with roman candles, m80's, and firecrackers. In the baby clothes shop, the owner actually produced a laminated catalog from underneath her desk that contained ten pages of photographed fireworks, ranging from sparklers and bottle rockets to those two-minute fireworks-show-in-a-box deals with names like 'Midnight Sunburn.' It felt like ordering from the tourist's menu in a foreign restaurant. We pointed to a few pictures, and the attendant emerged five minutes later from a backroom with our selections in a black plastic bag.

The crackdown doesn't bode well for the revenue stream in Chinatown, where markups on firework prices were 200 to 300 percent, according to Interim Los Angeles Fire Chief James Featherstone.

The city attorney and police officials declined to comment on how the sweeps are being conducted, or under what conditions law enforcement officials are filing for warrants, citing potential obstruction of the ongoing investigation. They confirmed only that they act on tips; Feuer has since established a hotline in case more people want to report unsanctioned fireworks sellers, and hinted at more sweeps in the coming weeks.

And so the shop owners are laying low. As one warned, "It's to the point where there might not even be firecrackers for Chinese New Years."


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