The last couple of years, we’ve all heard a lot (maybe too much) about Los Angeles’ hipster gourmet food trucks and how the trucks have made the city the tastemaker of the American street food scene.
But what’s gotten much less attention is L.A.’s other street food community, the thousands of mostly poor immigrants who sell food from sidewalk pushcarts and small portable kitchens around the city. These are the street vendors you see selling tacos, tamales, fruit cocktails, Salvadoran pupusas and bacon-wrapped hot dogs across town. The vendors are found in particularly high numbers in Los Angeles neighborhoods like Highland Park, South L.A., Koreatown, Boyle Heights and Echo Park, all places where the constitute a shadow culinary scene. Like immigrants of the past, people turn to selling food from pushcarts because the investment in equipment is so much less than opening up a brick and mortar restaurant or buying a food truck.
But unlike selling food from a truck, selling food from pushcarts on the sidewalks of Los Angeles is illegal. In fact, it’s illegal even if you’re a vendor who’s paid for official street vending permits from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and your cart is completely up to snuff when it comes to sanitation.
Because of L.A.’s street vending ban, the city’s population of street vendors plays a constant cat and mouse game, both with the police and inspectors attached to the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, which is charged with policing the sidewalks. Vendors who are cited can face fines of several hundred dollars, the confiscation of their carts, and even jail time.
That situation has gotten so intolerable for street food vendors that many are organizing themselves with the help of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, a non-profit community development organization. In a series of evening town halls held across the city, vendors are coming together to voice their complaint and develop a strategy to get City Hall to overturn the city’s street vending ban. As every vendor I met told me, they don’t want to do anything wrong, they’re just trying to survive and their pushcarts are key to that. You can hear my story on vendors below: