It’s been more than a month since Metro’s Westlake/MacArthur Park station became a launching pad for Los Angeles’ first-of-its-kind community marketplace, one that gives street vendors the opportunity to have a legal and safe space to sell their wares. Now, the next step is allowing vendors there to sell food, but organizers are facing some hurdles, and they’re being careful about how they approach it — for good reason.
On any given day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the bustling portal to this Metro station is lined with red, yellow and white canopies that shade 70 vendor tables, which are covered with all sorts of goods, from clothing to shampoo bottles and cookware. The merchants, many of them immigrants who previously sold their items on sidewalks surrounding the area, now have permits to vend at this marketplace without fear of getting citations from authorities.
Wade Thompson, a vendor who has been selling at this plaza market since its inception, sees the benefits of this new arrangement. “We don’t have to worry about being out there [on the streets now], because cops would sometimes make us pick up and leave. Over here, we have permits and we don’t have to worry about that.”
The marketplace’s organizers — which include Metro, L.A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Central City Neighborhood Partners and Union de Vendedores Ambulantes (UPVA) — originally planned to set up five food vendor booths a few weeks ago. However, efforts have been stalled because they’re treading carefully on a complicated situation involving permitted and unpermitted street vendors.
Trying to secure the proper permits to sell food isn't the problem. The organizers are planning to use the Community Event application, which is used by food vendors at festivals. “That's less restrictive than getting a food permit for a restaurant or permitting a cart or truck,” says Dave Sotero, Metro's communications manager. “Foreseeable issues are less about the market, since we will purchase the equipment necessary to comply. However, other food vendors outside of the market may be cited for noncompliance.”
This is where things get tricky. In order to understand this issue, one must realize that there were myriad reasons this program was launched in the first place. According to Metro, goals included “minimizing blight and disorder at the station, eliminating unpermitted street vending, reducing crime, ensuring safe boarding and alighting of bus patrons and transforming the station plaza into an inviting community environment.”
Two major issues that organizers especially wanted to deal with were getting street vendors, who were blocking sidewalks and causing ADA compliance issues, off the streets, and giving vendors “a protected, specified area that gives them the dignity and respect they deserve to sell their products,” says Fredy Ceja, communications director for Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who represents the area.
However, opening the marketplace didn’t end up lowering the amount of illegal street vending on the sidewalks, as the organizers had hoped. Walk by the Westlake/MacArthur Park Station today and you’ll still see many vendors selling food under rainbow umbrellas, and wares on blue tarps laid out on the pathways. Hugo Ortiz, a community organizer for Cedillo’s office, says that when a vendor leaves a sidewalk space for the marketplace, someone else ends up taking over their spot. "They’re coming from all over," he says of the new sellers. "It’s not just the city of L.A. They’re hearing that this is the place to be. They're reading the papers and seeing it in the news."
Sotero says that while the vendors participating in the marketplace are "glad to vend without fear," they also are "concerned that new vendors are taking 'their' space on the sidewalk, causing some to leave the pilot and set back up on the sidewalk."
Ceja is positive about the program and says, "We still have work to do, but it’s a pilot program and we’re learning from our experiences."
Ortiz says they’re taking heed of the food situation because if they were to just go ahead and launch the food vendor booths, it would pose a problem for the sidewalk sellers. The Department of Public Health for L.A. County would ultimately cite the street vendors who are selling without permits in the surrounding area.
“We just want to be careful on moving forward and not having the opposite effect of what we’re trying to do, which is trying to help these vendors out, and being punitive on the other side. It’s trying to figure out what that next step is on how to fit either more people in the plaza or how we can do it on the streets,” Ortiz says. “We don’t want to rush this through and have a negative effect of getting people cited.”
At the end of this month, Cedillo’s staffers will meet with the group of sidewalk vendors to discuss ways to mitigate the issues. For now, the food vendors who have already been chosen to participate in the marketplace are selling nonfood items at the booths until the groups reach a resolution, which could take some time. Sotero says that they're hoping to launch the food component this summer, but it's still difficult to gauge how long it will actually take because they'll need to perform outreach with the vendors, educating them on the situation. In addition to solving this matter, it takes at least 30 days for participants to go through the permitting process.
Juan Vazquez, who has been selling an array of wares like headphones and supplements at the marketplace for the last couple of weeks, says he hopes to see regional food at the booths, such as pupusas, and thinks it will help drive up business for all the other merchants. He also voices concern about the influx of sidewalk vendors, who he feels are encroaching on their marketplace space and grabbing the attention of potential customers before they make it to the plaza at the station. Regardless, Vazquez, who previously sold items on trains, is still happy about it all. “It’s awesome,” he says. “We get a lot of clientele and it’s a safe environment to sell in and that’s one of the good things about it.”
Thompson says he enjoys the marketplace, and for him, having a stall feels like he’s going to a regular job every day. Like Vazquez, Thompson feels safer selling at the marketplace because of the security hired by organizers; they scan the area for any nefarious activity, including gang intimidation, which is a major concern for street vendors. "The challenge here has been the criminal element, and I'm talking more specifically gang activity," Lt. Henry Saucedo of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department told LAist. "You have a particular gang here, and I'm not going to give them the credit of mentioning their gang name, but they control this particular area, and they try to — and do — intimidate the folks here. You have a lot of immigrants who are setting up shop, and they tax them. In order to do business here, they would tax them to ask for money for protection and in order to be able to work here. They control what was going on here."
This marketplace is the fruition of two years of work and community organizing. Originally, street vendors organized themselves because they were getting ticketed and harassed by the LAPD. The vendors and their allies led a protest on March 31, 2015, outside LAPD headquarters, airing their grievances and pleading with police to stop criminalizing street vendors. Nearly two years later, the L.A. City Council voted to decriminalize street vending. It was an effort that was rushed for fear that misdemeanors for street vending could lead to deportations under President Donald Trump's crackdown on immigrants living in the country illegally. It’ll still take some time for officials to work out the details in getting permits to the street vendors, but while that’s taking place, vendors can still be ticketed but won’t face misdemeanor charges.
While the city's working out its program to legalize street vendors, Cedillo's office figured it could start its own pilot program in his own district and create a permitting process first. Ceja says his office wanted to figure out how to help this group of vendors who had organically organized and formed the union UPVA to run their business legally. They started meeting with the vendors to discuss their criteria for setting up a marketplace, and the lessons the merchants had learned from other programs that came through the neighborhood, weighing the pros and cons of what did and didn't work. The city worked alongside the county in securing seed money to start the project, buying tables and canopies for the market, as well as paying for operating expenses, securing permits and providing security.
Cedillo’s office worked out an informal agreement with LAPD that was based on ADA compliance with the sidewalks. They also laid out rules: Marketplace vendors cannot sell illicit items, such as drugs, fake documents, pornography and stolen goods. Vendors would pay $20 a month to get a part of a booth, and their fees would contribute to operating costs.
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Ceja says that UPVA is working on forming its own nonprofit, and hopefully will be self-sufficient after the first year of the marketplace's operation. Vendors who have been selling for at least one year within the area of the plaza are given first priority in the lottery of vendors chosen to sell at the marketplace. The members meet once a month. There’s also a UPVA booth at the station that gives more information about joining the union.
This marketplace is already filled to capacity and has a 100-person waitlist. After its first year, organizers will assess how it’s doing and determine if it makes sense to replicate it at other Metro spaces throughout the city and the county. Sotero reiterates that this is a "first-of-its-kind" pilot program, and says, "We will continue to monitor operations closely, and make fine adjustments to support a thriving community market while meeting our joint safety, security and transit accessibility imperatives."
Ceja says while they’re working with LAPD to protect the vendors selling at the marketplace, the next step is enforcement for those who aren’t compliant with keeping the sidewalks clear for wheelchairs to go through.
On the other hand, he also sees that the marketplace working out well. “This is very reminiscent of mercados that you see in Mexico or Latin America, where people are used to walking through one specific area to purchase everything, from fruit to household goods. And it’s creating that sense of culture and environment where they feel protected.”