Answers do not come easy for vendors on the street near Vermont and Melrose Avenues. They jostle for position, interact with police, and try to carve out a living.
A few Vendors’ stands spill over onto Willowbrook and Vermont behind L.A. City College on March 21, 2021. The number of vendors on the street has increased since the pandemic forced the closure of the parking lot swap meet last year.
BY GERARDO DE LOS SANTOS
Students and faculty were not the only ones whose worlds changed when L.A. City College closed its doors last March.
Anyone familiar with the area knows about the bustling weekend swap meet in the parking lot on Vermont Avenue across the street from the college. Around 200 vendors were once able to rent a space inside the parking lot and set up their small businesses.
The spread of coronavirus forced many stores, restaurants, and other social environments in Los Angeles to close, and this included the swap meet.
Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the L.A. Al Fresco initiative to support dine-out opportunities for restaurants last May. The initiative granted approval for vendors to set up on sidewalks and in eligible private parking lots.
However, vendors did not necessarily welcome this news, since Garcetti never fully included street vendors in the initiative. After heavy criticism, Garcetti eventually extended the approval to street vendors with a permit.
Selling outside the swap meet gates presents its own set of challenges.
The lack of office space can lead to harassment by law enforcement, according to vendors who say police force them off the street and make them leave the area. Vendors informed the Collegian of situations where officers would trash their equipment and/or merchandise if vendors did not move quickly enough.
“You have to leave, or they throw your stuff away in the trash,” 51-yearold Javier Sanchez said about his interactions with police.
In 2015, a street vendor in the Fashion District of downtown Los Angeles sued the city, alleging their property was destroyed and they were threatened with deportation.
In the case of Santiago v. City of Los Angeles, the plaintiff alleged that “officers [would] routinely verbally harass the street vendors and insult them, and, on occasion, threaten them with deportation if the vendors protested the seizure of their property,” according to case documents filed.
A settlement was reached just three weeks after officials decriminalized street vending in 2019.
Sanchez admits that it is difficult to say whether being outside is entirely a good thing, since it did provide its own security against police harassment. However, there is now added competition within the area with vendors fighting for a sidewalk space.
“There are people here since 4 a.m., Fridaymornings,” Sanchez said. “The crisis has been very difficult and in reality, a lot of us do not have papers.”
“Seguimos luchando,” Sanchez said. Determined to find ways to survive. For him and his wife, their lives are not the only ones they are luchando for.
Meanwhile, competition is fierce on Vermont Avenue. Vendors told the Collegian about threats made by some sellers to call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if they refused to give up their space on the sidewalk.
Many vendors are immigrants who may not speak fluent English or understand the published regulations from the city.
Some vendors find support from a grassroots program. The day-to-day sellers rely on the Community Power Collective (CPC).
Sergio Jimenez and “Miguel” represent the collective. Both are determined to ensure that all vendors follow guidelines to sell. They make rounds at the sidewalk swap meet to inform vendors of their rights and options.
According to the duo, the need to make threats, arriving early for space, and other internal conflict is because of a lack of structure and no compassion for one another. The objective of the organization is to unite.
“Everyone is trying to secure a spot, that’s why they are here so early,” Sergio said. “A lot of vendors become day-to-day sellers because they no longer have the type of agreement they once had with the swap meet.”
No one knows this more than Miguel who is a vendor and active representative of CPC. Miguel fought for his right to sell his merchandise by acquiring his permit, and now he focuses on ensuring others do, too.
Vendors on Vermont Avenue told the Collegian of situations where some with reserved spots would often rent their space in the LACC Swap Meet parking lots to other vendors before the pandemic, and sellers say it is expensive.
“We would pay a lot of money,” said Teresa Hernandez who was been a vendor for more than five years. “Sometimes we wouldn’t sell, but still had to pay the rent cost.”
Hernandez claims to have paid va few thousand per month at the weekend swap meet. The secondhand clothing vendor says she would use her business to pay her bills and support her family.
Hernandez would sell anything from pants to shorts, from winter clothing to summer apparel, which she would lay out on her two-table set up. It was a treasure hunt, looking through the mountains of garments piled on top of each other.
When the Collegian asked Hernandez if she would consider returning to the weekend swap meet, she was direct.
“No, I do not think I would return,” Hernandez said.
The situation is give-and-take since there clearly are financial incentives. But the benefits of selling on the sidewalk since the swap meet has been closed bring mixed reviews.
“In reality outside is better,” said Sanchez who has rented at the swap meet for more than two decades. “But there is a limit to what we could have outside.”
Sanchez runs his small business alongside his wife. They provide for their family of five and work to put their kids through school with hopes they will one day graduate from college. The couple immigrated from Mexico to find a better life. Much like Hernandez, Sanchez sells a variety of hand-me-down clothes.
As a vendor, the initial goal is to have as much merchandise as possible on hand for the public. They also have a disadvantage in comparison to bigger retail businesses that can afford to rent office space. Now, with social distancing regulations, vendors find it more difficult to exhibit as much inventory.
Since Jan.1, 2019 street vending has been decriminalized and allowed under SB 946, which former Gov. Jerry Brown signed. However, the process of getting a permit is tedious and requires sifting through multiple applications and websites.
The first step to be eligible to rent space would be to acquire a California Department of Tax and Fee Administration Seller’s Permit. After that, the vendor may bid for a space, which starts at around $60 per day and may go up to $80 or more depending on the bidding and whether you are a reserved or non-reserved vendor, according to the LACC swap meet website.
The parking lot continues to remain closed forcing many vendors to adapt to the new world to survive. Many vendors have now applied for the permit for not only the survival of their business, but of their families.
Permit fees were initially $291 if applicants applied prior to July 1, 2020. Applicants who applied after that date will now pay $541, according to StreetsLA. This is a huge savings from the weekly fee vendors would pay for the LACC Swap Meet. The L.A. City College Foundation oversees the Swap Meet. Calls to the Foundation by the Collegian were not returned. of the ordinary has happened at his parents’ shop, he says.
Park’s parents own a local Korean convenience store that has been operated by his family since 1982.
“I’m lucky but I do worry sometimes about my parents having contact with strangers every day, so I’ve been going out of my way to close the shop,” he said.
There’s no doubt that rhetoric from the former leader of the free world about COVID-19 being a “Chinese virus” has stoked existing fires. Spikes in violence and discrimination against Asian Americans come on the heels of American anxieties regarding the rapid economic rise of China, coupled with American hegemony on the decline worldwide, provide a scapegoat for Americans’ frustrations.
The topic is not without a great amount of nuance, and city officials are making carefully worded community impact statements that reflect their solidarity with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“The community impact statement that will be brought forward in April has the intention of raising awareness about racially-motivated violence pertaining specifically to members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community,” said Lucine Poturyan of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council for District 4, Little Armenia.