Most Angelenos have had the same experience leaving a concert, or a nightclub or a ball game.
As the crowds shuffle outside, the air hangs thick with the sounds of the sizzling griddle, the primal smell of cooking meat and the smatterings of rapid bits of the Spanish language.
This is the real show. It plays nightly, seven days a week.
Street carts, selling a wide variety of food, are the headliners of this late-night event.
Admission costs a few dollars. But pay up, and you’ll get a crispy steaming pupusa stuffed to the gills with beans and cheese, a carne asada taco dripping with fresh, zesty salsa or a bacon-wrapped hot dog heaped liberally with onions and peppers.
But within the strict letter of municipal law, these vendors are criminals, subject to a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for merely selling their wares.
It’s within this constant level of anxiety and scrutiny that the estimated 50,000 people selling their food or merchandise on Los Angeles' streets have to operate.
Emanuel Ramirez, a third-year applied mathematics student, remembers the fear well. It was the one constant in his years of hawking hot dogs in South Los Angeles.
“You get used to the idea that something could always happen, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” he said, reminiscing.
If you look closely at his arms, you’ll see the faded brown splotches from hot oil burns, physical reminders of the hours and hours he spent in front of a griddle during his high school years.
"I knew it was illegal, but I did it out of necessity." Emanuel Ramirez, third-year applied mathematics
Every weekend from the age of 13 to the time he graduated high school, Ramirez would buy cases of hot dogs and vegetables, chop up and prepare the ingredients, load up a pickup truck with his cart and set up shop outside of the nightclubs around midnight.
Around 1:30 a.m., the crowd began trickling in, and by 2 a.m., the torrent rushed in for its nocturnal drunken fix, leading to lines that stretched as far back as he could see.
He grooved into a pattern as he worked: bun, hot dog, veggies, sauce, bun, hot dog, veggies, sauce, his mind and hands going into frenetic autopilot as he tried to serve all the hungry customers.
At the end of the night, he would leave exhausted with the smell of smoke and cooked hot dogs baked into his clothes and pockets flush with cash.
“This was a business I started up pretty much by myself because I couldn’t really get a job anywhere else, and I was actually successful and making a lot of money,” he said. “I knew it was illegal, but I did it out of necessity.”
During his weekends working, he was never ticketed by the authorities, although there were several close calls. Other street vendors were not so lucky.
One time, as he sold his hot dogs on the sidewalk, he saw another hot dog vendor on the opposite side of the street handcuffed and detained by authorities.
“I don’t know whether he got arrested or what happened to him, but he was doing the exact same thing as me,” Ramirez said. “All he was trying to do was make a living for himself, not hurting anybody, but because it’s illegal he lost his business.”
Street vendors in Los Angeles are stuck in a legal bind. A visit from law enforcement or the health authorities could mean hundreds of dollars in fines or the seizure of thousands of dollars worth of food and materials, depending on the charge.
Many vendors are undocumented or come from low-income neighborhoods, so they lack the knowledge or willingness to go against authorities and get their carts and food back.
Mark Vallianatos, a member of the steering committee for the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, which was organized to legalize street vending, said vendors face a triple threat from the Los Angeles Police Department, the city’s Bureau of Street Services and inspectors from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“The question you want to ask the authorities is: Is this really the major public safety issue in the city of L.A.?” Vallianatos said.
An emailed statement from the Department of Public Health said that illegal street vending can be a public health concern, with improperly prepared food leading to foodborne illness, especially among vulnerable populations.
In order to combat this concern, the county offers the opportunity to apply for a public health permit. But even if this criteria is fulfilled, vendors are still prohibited under L.A. city laws to sell their food on the sidewalk.
“There’s no incentive to get the proper permits,” Vallianatos said. “Whatever they do, it’s still illegal in the city.”
Currently, Los Angeles is the only one of the 10 largest cities in the United States that prohibits street vending.
In recent years, a coalition of community groups and street vendors has formed to put pressure on City Hall to fix this disconnect with city and county policy, and allow vendors to work legally.
As a result, the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign was formed with the mission to advocate for a path toward legalization for the city’s street vendors.
Janet Favela, an organizer with both the campaign and the East L.A. Community Corporation, a grassroots community group, said passionate vendors have pulled numerous advocacy groups into the legalization effort.
“I think there’s always been a need for this as long as vendors have been surviving here,” Favela said. “Every day they are out there, they are taking a risk – just existing and doing their work is a struggle.”
The campaign has gained traction in the media and with the public, leading to scores of op-eds and editorials – including from the Los Angeles Times – in support of making street vending legal. The campaign has also managed to gain traction in the slippery corridors of City Hall.
“This city does not have the capacity to enforce much of anything... What makes us think that we can control street vending in this city?” Hal Bastian, city developer and owner of Hal Bastian Inc.
At a December City Council committee meeting, councilmembers and the public discussed a legalization plan that would require vendors to take a number of steps, including going through training courses, registering to pay taxes and getting permits from the Department of Public Health, before applying for the legal right to sell their goods on the streets of Los Angeles.
Public commentators from both sides of the debate passionately appealed to the council table.
Hal Bastian, a city developer and owner of Hal Bastian Inc., spoke out against legalization, saying he was skeptical of the possibility of active enforcement of street vending laws and concerned about the damage to brick-and-mortar businesses and property values.
“This city does not have the capacity to enforce much of anything, go just over to Skid Row and watch people shooting up in the public realm,” Bastian said. “What makes us think that we can control street vending in this city?”
Councilman Curren Price Jr., who represents the 9th District in Los Angeles and has been one of the political players pushing for street vending legalization, pointed to the possible economic benefit of street vending regulation.
“I firmly believe that creating a system for street vending will help micro-entrepreneurs thrive,” Price said. “It will allow people who are part of this underground economy to come out of the shadows and generate some income and some revenue.”
The end result of the meeting was a wash.
The plan was sent back to the chief legislative analyst’s office for more review and greater elaboration of procedures.
While the plan for legalization did warrant public discussion, progress is not coming fast enough for activists, some of whom have been working on the campaign for years.
Esther Park, the community outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which is part of the campaign, said a fairly rigorous process for health and safety already exists, which adds to the argument for legalization.
“The reality is that the vendors are going to be there whether legalization exists or not,” said Park, a former Daily Bruin staffer and a 2010 UCLA alumna.
Favela also expressed frustration at the kind of bureaucratic logjam that has stymied forward movement. She said community meetings that were planned by the chief legislative analyst’s office to take place in March have already been rescheduled twice to the end of May.
As the debate over legalization swirls and makes its way through the city’s legislative process, street vendors still stand at risk of losing their livelihoods on a regular basis.
People like vendor Benjamin Venegas, 48, reported an upsurge of harassment from authorities since the time they began working on the streets.
“Before, they used to just tell you to leave. Now, they threaten to arrest you or deport you,” Venegas said through a translator. “It just keeps getting worse and worse.”
Venegas has worked with his family in swap meets across the city for almost a quarter of a century, selling churros from a small metal stand.
Inside of his stand sits a specialized machine that sections off pieces of dough that then drop into a shiny, metallic tub filled with bubbling oil. After being scooped up and dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar, the churros are deposited in brown paper bags, still warm from their deep-fried bath.
Biting into one of the churros is a delicious experience. The crispy exterior hides a doughy, chewy inside and a taste that’s the perfect amount of sweet.
When Venegas talks about his business prospects, though, his mood turns bitter.
Rubbing his hands, joints swollen with rheumatism, he speaks in a low voice about the frustration of having his ingredients and supplies seized, sometimes up to twice a week, losing hundreds of dollars that would have gone toward putting food on his family’s table.
“I want people to know all the food we sell is very hygienic – it’s the same as the people selling in restaurants with permits. We just can’t get one,” Venegas said. “The solution is to get everyone permits so they are part of the legalized system and pay taxes.”
In March, the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign organized a political demonstration outside of LAPD headquarters asking for a stop to ticketing and hassling from law enforcement while the legalization process winds through City Hall.
A report issued in April by the UCLA School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic made a series of recommendations to the Los Angeles city attorney’s office that include ceasing prosecutions until new legislation is passed and dismissing pending sidewalk vending prosecutions.
“I told them I had a permit, but they didn’t believe me. I felt like a criminal.” Maria, a street vendor
None of these recommendations have been officially adopted by city agencies.
Maria, 43, a street vendor who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal, has set up her stand on the same street corner in South Los Angeles for 20 years.
For the last eight, she’s had a colorful permit pasted to the side of her metal cart, where she sells a variety of snacks, candy, fruit and food products.
The costs of permitting under county and city laws run into the thousands annually, but even so, the small square of laminated plastic rarely acts as a shield from harassment from the police and other authorities.
Recently, she said she was packing all of her products when officials came and threatened to throw away all of her merchandise, which would have left her hundreds of dollars in the hole.
“I told them I had a permit, but they didn’t believe me,” Maria said through a translator. “I felt like a criminal and had to stand up and defend myself before they left me alone and stopped bullying me.”
Still, she admits she skirts the strict letter of the law out of necessity, often displaying her goods on the sidewalk instead of inside the legal confines of her cart.
“I know it’s illegal to sell this much stuff on the street,” she said. “But it’s the way I provide for my family.”
Maria’s sidewalk sprawl has led to multiple tickets and warnings, but her wide array of food products is exactly the argument some are using for the legalization of street vending.
At the front of her cart sits not only junk food, but also bright tropical fruit, fresh tortillas and fried wheat puffs that are traditionally splashed with lime and hot sauce before being handed off to customers.
Street vendors often act as healthy food oases in the “food deserts” that are pervasive in pockets of low-income Los Angeles, said Park, who works on food access and food security issues.
“Essentially, the idea is that access to healthy food options is a very eminent issue in these lower-income communities and has to be addressed through supporting multiple food enterprises, including street food vending,” Park said.
Park added that legalization legislation could provide incentives like lower permitting costs for vendors looking toward selling healthier food options.
Providing incentives for selling healthier food is only one aspect of street vending legalization that would work especially well in Los Angeles, Vallianatos said.
Vallianatos, an adjunct instructor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College, lectured about characteristics of legislation in other cities that would have to be amended for street vending legalization to work in Los Angeles’ unique environment.
New York City has capped its number of permits since the 1970s, creating a barrier of entry for vendors while also leading to a black market for the limited number of permits. Portland, Ore., has specified vending areas in the city, similar to a plan in the 1990s that was piloted around MacArthur Park and failed.
“We imagine a system that takes the best of what these systems have to offer, like liability insurance and training in best health practices, but has the kind of flexibility that will work in L.A.,” Vallianatos said.
In Los Angeles, a city carved up into ethnic enclaves, Vallianatos spoke about the importance that street vendors have in shaping the vibrancy of life on the sidewalks.
“It’s almost like you’re recreating the cultural space of the country of origin,” Vallianatos said. “When you have a culture built up around street food, it’s reminiscent of the kind of outdoor space you see in Latin America with people walking around and eating.”
In the eyes of many vendors and activists, the public campaign for legalization of street vending has given political power to a group of people that has been perpetually disenfranchised.
“But if you know vendors, then you know they position themselves as entrepreneurs and businesspeople, as ‘luchadores,’ as fighters.” Janet Favela, an organizer of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign
Even as he studies at UCLA, Ramirez said he remembers the people he spent weekend nights with for four years.
“They’re some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my entire life, and they deserve to have (street vending) legalized,” he said. “What’s funny is that we have people in this country that have the ability to work and choose not to. These people want to work, but just can’t.”
Favela said vendors have had fire and strength as a community all this time, but the campaign is simply igniting it.
“This is the first time the general public is seeing the spirit and voice of these people,” Favela said. “But if you know vendors, then you know they position themselves as entrepreneurs and businesspeople, as ‘luchadores,’ as fighters.”
The fight continues for these people, many of whom crossed countries and hundreds of miles for the opportunity to work their way into the diverse fabric of Los Angeles.