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Vendors Bring New Way of Life to Los Angeles Streets : Entrepreneurs: Their future, and nature of the city, are on the line as council vote on legalization nears.

DOING BUSINESS. The distinctive character of commerce in Southern California. One in an occasional series.

December 25, 1991|SUSAN MOFFAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the streets of Los Angeles you drive past people who have come here looking for something--something they haven't found yet; people trying to sell you something--something you don't really need.

Lime green leopard-skin-patterned fake sheepskin auto seat covers. Plaster-of-Paris busts of Cleopatra and Beethoven. Framed posters of Michael Jordan. Zebra rugs. Paisley pillows. Bags of peanuts. Popsicles.

And, of course, oranges--bags of oranges swinging from young men's hands like signals at seemingly every freeway off-ramp.

Almost all of it is illegal. But for the first time in recent Los Angeles history, some of this flourishing trade could gain official sanction next month, when the City Council is scheduled to debate the licensing of street vendors.

The tempest in a pushcart raging around the issue mirrors a much broader debate on the nature of Los Angeles:

Is the city destined to be an urban, polyglot capital of the Third World, nurturing a crazy quilt of hundreds of cultures bringing their habits to its streets? Or can it somehow again become a staunch bastion of suburban values, including the separation of house and mall--a haven for escapees from colder, more crowded cities who cherish the tidy over the teeming, uniformity over diversity, signage in English and produce in sanitary plastic wrap?

For those who value the second set of ideals, reality already has overtaken their paradise.

The city's thousands of street vendors are Guatemalan and Korean, African-American and Iranian. They have taken over boulevards trashy, brutish and long--streets largely deserted by the well-heeled, who whiz past on their way to curving suburban drives and climate-controlled shopping centers.

On these open-air gallerias, the merchants sell according to traditions most of them brought with them from somewhere else. Many come from Latin-American cultures where the life of the street--the crowds and food smells and wares spilling onto sidewalks--is the very heart of the community.

Some call this street life the vitality of a great metropolis, the portent of vibrant entrepreneurship. Others say it's urban chaos produced by an all-engulfing immigrant population explosion.

To Dora Alicia Alarcon, a mother of five who makes $30 a day selling Christmas cards at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, the cultural debate is moot. This is one of the few ways she can make a living.

"Thanks to God I have work," she says in Spanish.

But to Gertrude Schwab of Wilmington, the Dora Alicias of the world don't belong on the sidewalks of Los Angeles.

"We're getting to be a Third World country," says the long-time homeowner, who has taken her complaints to Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores. "It's nasty. It's not clean. . . . They set up outside like a fruit market. They're selling pillows on a stick. They're going door to door selling tamales. It's disgusting."

The question, it seems, is whether Los Angeles is a city like any other, where people meet to buy and sell on the street, or, rather, some kind of non-city--somehow different, somehow better.

More than 50 years ago, Los Angeles leaders decided it was different. Not for Los Angeles were sidewalks crowded with peddlers and jobbers, the hustle and bustle of huddled masses actually displaying their yearnings to make a living on the street.

By the 1930s, the city fathers had passed Municipal Ordinance 40.00, Section D. Ringing more of pre- perestroika Moscow than a great capital of commerce, it states:

"No person . . . shall on any street offer for sale, solicit the sale of, announce by any means the availability of, or have in his possession, control, or custody . . . any goods, ware or merchandise which the public may purchase at any time."

That rule makes Los Angeles one of the few major metropolises in the world that, at least on paper, absolutely forbids vending on its sidewalks (with the exception of newspapers). Paris, Tokyo, Washington and New York either license or tolerate sales of food and goods in public spaces.

Los Angeles' uniquely Draconian restriction on commercial activity was apparently designed to maintain the city's vision of itself as an urban suburb. But now, with the reality of street vending overwhelming the letter of the law, the City Council is considering the legalization and licensing of one of the few sectors of the economy that is flourishing in hard times.

The ordinance proposed by Councilman Michael Woo would license rather than outlaw vendors of food and other goods, impose standards of hygiene and taxation and charge license fees to pay for enforcement personnel.

"The unoccupied streets of Los Angeles are a criminally wasted resource, given the weather and our ethnic diversity," says Woo, who established a city task force on vending last year. "We should be encouraging these people to work for a living."

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