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Street Vendors: A Hard Sell in Long Beach | The Rub
/ Dealing with conflict in the urban zone.

Recent Crackdown Reflects a Culture Clash Between Latino Immigrants and Middle-Class Property Owners

May 03, 1996|JOHN COX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As he drives his produce truck down Golden Avenue in western Long Beach, constantly on the lookout for regular customers, Pablo Hernandez faces a dilemma.

If he honks his horn like he used to, customers may stream out of apartment buildings to buy his eggs, tortillas and bananas. But condominium owners nearby also might call the police.

Hernandez's hesitation underscores the competing needs of a neighborhood in flux. Though he serves a steady clientele of mostly Latino immigrants, a new and growing constituency of middle-class property owners object to such activity as a symptom of urban blight.

In the middle of this divisive issue stand the Long Beach police. To the officers who respond to various complaints about the street vendors, the heart of the problem is clearly a cultural rift.

"There is that cultural clash," Officer Michael Green said. Whereas street hawkers thrive in most Latin American countries, "here we're not used to people vending like that. We're used to going to a store."

Most agree that the vendor problem has subsided since police and city health officers launched an aggressive campaign a year and a half ago to enforce city and state laws dealing with noise levels, food preparation and business licenses. But complaints persist.

"It depends on how recently the police have been cracking down," said Carol McCafferty, secretary and treasurer of the Willmore City Heritage Assn., a homeowners group that cited the elimination of street vendors citywide among its list of priorities for 1996.

"I'm waiting for one of our kids to get sick off [vendors' goods] and maybe [then] we can get some action here."

Local merchants also file complaints, in part because vendors can go right to customers' doors, but also because stores find it hard to compete with unlicensed businesses that may not pay taxes.

Others say the city's intervention goes too far and badgers the vendors. Instead, they say, more attention should be focused on helping vendors legitimize their businesses.

"[Unlicensed vendors] are not acting in bad faith," said Aurelio Agundez, president of the the city's Latino Entrepreneurial Assn. "They don't know the law."

But illegal immigrants unable to acquire a Social Security number do not qualify for a city business license. For them it remains a game of cat and mouse.

"It's one of those problems that if you erase it, in a few days it just comes right back," said City Councilman Mike Donelon.

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That a die-hard group of ice cream and produce vendors keeps pushing carts and driving trucks through a portion of Long Beach known as the West End highlights the promise the neighborhood once held for such businesses.

In the 1920s, residents built large homes on the periphery of what is now downtown. When these middle-class settlers left decades later, a variety of ethnic groups moved in, creating a demand for the apartments where many street vendors now live.

By the late 1980s, many of these neighborhoods had fallen into blight, prompting a call for redevelopment. Whole stretches were leveled to make room for condominiums.

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Police say recent immigrants with a little capital and a familiarity with street vending saw these developments as potential business. While other parts of the city are mostly single-family homes, the apartments and condos in West End offered a high concentration of potential customers.

Police and city health officials are attacking the problem on a variety of fronts. Depending on where and how often they receive complaints, police cite vendors for violations ranging from double parking to operating without a business license, with penalties that range from $20 tickets to confiscation of a truck's entire inventory. Noise complaints are handled by the health department, which also inspects vendors' carts and trucks.

Based on Hernandez's experience in the produce truck, the crackdown is working. He says he relies more on shouting to announce his truck's arrival after he received a citation a few months ago for using his horn. But he says that puts him at a disadvantage with renegade competitors.

Police suspect that success in quieting one area means that the vendors have migrated elsewhere. And unless that prompts complaints from other residents, they tend to consider the problem solved.

*

Lt. Torben Beith says that a larger number of vendors are showing up farther north in a more predominantly Latino area.

"What's interesting," he said, "is that we get very few complaints about vendors in that neighborhood."

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