The Geography of Getting By

A mile west of the polished-granite and tinted-glass towers of the Los Angeles skyline, in the dense Central American hub of MacArthur Park, there is a street called Little. It is exactly that, a one-block nub, sandwiched between Wilshire on the north and Seventh on the south, bookended by stop signs, leading to nowhere. Iron bars run down the east side of the sidewalk, shielding an elementary school from intruders; on the west side, more bars, these topped by diamond-shaped barbs, guard the rear of an apartment complex. You could drive past Little Street a thousand times and never notice it, much less have reason to turn here.

Every weekend since last December the city has sealed off Little with plastic Department of Public Works sawhorses. A vinyl banner, designed with clip art of a rainbow-swaddled cornucopia, stretches across each set of barricades. “ArtGricultural Open Air Market,” the sign says, a portmanteau of artesenía and agricultura that, in any language, requires some effort. On a gleaming Sunday afternoon, not long after the market’s debut, a Honda generator was lumbering on the asphalt, powering a P.A., and a representative of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council was at the mic, looking to whip the crowd into a wallet-opening frenzy. The bursts of Spanish conjured a late-night TV huckster, if he were Nicaraguan and backed by a cumbia beat: “Bienvenidos al mercado número uno del área. C’mon in, don’t be alarmed. Everything’s cheap, cheap, cheap!!! Loco, loco, loco!!!”

The pitch was delivered with equal measures optimism and irony. At that moment, Little Street was empty—or more precisely, it had 16 functioning stalls, out of the 60 that organizers had budgeted for, and zero customers. The bottles of knockoff perfume that Laura Carpio had arranged like glass dolls were cooking in the winter sun, the Blue for Lady turning a murky brown. The lettuce trucked in by Candelario Guzman, the street’s lone farmer, looked as though it would need some luck to survive the three-hour haul back to rural Santa Barbara County. Instead of an open-air market, Little Street was more like a holding pen, its inhabitants culled and quarantined from the herd. The hour growing desperate, Francisco Aguirre, the sock and shoe man, turned to the occult. He opened a slim packet of incense, the kind sold at botánicas and other folk apothecaries. The label said “Llama Cliente” on one side, and on the other, “Call Clients”—a metaphysical plea for shoppers.

“The others, they say to me, ‘Dumbass, why are you there? You’re wasting your time,’” said Aguirre, who sparked a stick and set it at his feet, the aromatic curls wafting over his Dodgers cap. “And, well, it has been somewhat frustrating. But one needs patience—and faith, lots of faith. I believe this will get better. It has to.”

Four blocks to the west, not 500 yards beyond Little Street’s officially sanctioned confines, the others are gathered on Alvarado, Mac-Arthur Park’s broad, garish thoroughfare. There, from Seventh Street across Wilshire Boulevard to Sixth Street, the sidewalks thrum with old--country, hand-to-hand commerce—an underground bazaar in plain view. Any product that can be rolled on wheels, in a shopping cart or baby stroller or suitcase or wagon or cooler, is hawked to the parade of families, from Usulután and Olancho and Sacatepéquez, that by tradition and necessity do their eating and shopping on foot. Outside the 99¢ Only Store, you can find boiled peanuts and raw shrimp and Salvadoran pupusas grilled on propane burners. On the curb by New Life Immigration Services, you can browse bootleg DVDs and imitation Lacoste shirts. At the entrance to the Red Line subway, you can have, for a dollar, anything James Acuña has scavenged: rolling pin, cell-phone charger, orange bandanna, Snoopy alarm clock. Down by McDonald’s, you can score a shoeshine or a coconut or the commodity that has made MacArthur Park a destination for decades, counterfeit identification. “Micas, micas,” the touts hiss, using the Mexican slang for a laminated card, “seguro social, licencia, you wanna ID?” In between, you must navigate a procession of beggars, evangelists, shills, pickpockets, and at least on this day, a fedora-topped hustler trying to unload a bottle of Bacardi 151, half-price.

“We are between the rock and the hard place,” says Carlos Ardon, whose nonprofit Public Immigrant Policies Institute of Los Angeles manages the Little Street market for the city. “We have vendors here who are trying to become part of the system, who are doing this in good faith. But I’m thinking—thinking, thinking—how is this going to work?”

Little Street represents L.A.’s newest experiment in regulated street vending, the economy of survival that has confounded police and policymakers here more or less since the old Mexican pueblo became an American city. Although most world capitals have accepted peddling as a fixture of urban life, even a complement, municipal code 42.00(b) still dictates that “no person … shall on any sidewalk or street offer for sale … any goods, wares or merchandise which the public may purchase at any time.” The flatness of the ban has its roots in L.A.’s pre-World War II vision of itself as a Midwestern suburb by the sea, linked by the automobile, not the nation’s largest immigrant metropolis. Thirty-five percent of Los Angeles County is now foreign-born, and three-quarters of a million of its 9.8 million residents are thought to be here illegally—a vast parallel society lured by the promise of work yet barred from the formal workforce. For many Latino immigrants, in particular, the ban on street vending represents the criminalization of their most entrepreneurial instincts, a restriction that thwarts self-sufficiency and discredits a cultural infrastructure centuries old. In the face of government hostility, thousands of unlicensed, often undocumented vendedores ambulantes fan out, morning and night, day after day, perhaps L.A.’s longest-running act of civil disobedience. At once ephemeral and entrenched, they have reimagined public space, occupying it before there was an Occupy, extracting value from the paved landscape. Street vending might be a crime, but it is also a map: the geography of getting by.

Of L.A.’s countless vending hotbeds, none has been more enduring or contested than Mac-Arthur Park, where the cycle of pressure and resistance has been playing out so long it seems almost scripted. Although a city task force 22 years ago concluded that “criminal police enforcement has not proven to be an effective means” of halting the proliferation of street vending, the Los Angeles Police Department is still the agency called on to run the vendors off. On Alvarado Street, and along the neighborhood’s other commercial strips, that means applying a misdemeanor to hold back market forces, wielding the threat of a ticket to quell a community already in defiance of federal immigration laws. Whenever police attempt to clear the streets, usually at the behest of brick-and-mortar merchants, they are perceived as the heavies; a single patrol car, with an officer barking “no más” out the window, can disrupt sales for hours, provoking something like a micro-recession. For reasons practical and political, though, the squeeze is rarely sustained: Crackdowns beget protests, then reprieves, backlashes, compromises, cave-ins, and ultimately more ambiguous signals. 

“They want enforcement, then it gets sensitive and they don’t want enforcement, then they want it, then they don’t,” says LAPD Sergeant Joel Miller, who heads the Rampart Division’s Special Problems Unit, an elite squad in black paramilitary garb assigned to grapple with MacArthur Park’s vendors. “I’m a firm believer the citizens of Los Angeles should get the level of enforcement they want.”

It would be natural to assume that the Little Street venture was a hard-fought breakthrough, the flawed but well-intended fruit of a campaign to at last legitimize L.A.’s legion of sidewalk peddlers. But that just explains the half of it. The story of MacArthur Park’s only authorized vending zone, a legal market forced to fend for itself in the shadow of an illicit one, begins not with a plan but a bullet.

 

His name was Manuel Jaminez Xum, a fact originally in doubt. His fingerprints matched a Manuel Ramirez in the U.S. Department of Justice database, and in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement files, he appeared to be Gregorio Luis Perez. But in the remote Guatemalan village of Caserio Xexac, a Maya enclave of some 2,000 on the slopes of the Xac volcano, in the Xejuyup township of the Nahualá municipality of the Sololá department, there was no mistake. Of the 60 to 70 men Xexac has sent north over the past decade, mostly to Los Angeles, Manuel Jaminez is the first to have died there. 

He made the decision to join the tide in 2003, after watching neighbors erect colonial palaces with the dollars their husbands and sons and nephews wired home. Everyone could see it, feel the same stirrings. Instead of a far-off land, the USA was suddenly in Xexac’s face: its promise, its abundance, exported to the K’iche’-speaking highlands, mocking their backwardness, taunting their ambition. Jaminez inhabited a world of magical beauty, of prehistoric butterflies and beehive ginger, but made $2 a day picking coffee. He lived in a cinder-block room, with a dirt floor and no plumbing, and slept on a raft of wooden planks. Despite the three young children he would leave behind—and the $5,000 he would have to borrow to pay the smuggler—Jaminez knew that migration was not so much a choice but a call. “It’s good,” his wife, Isabel, told him, a conversation recounted by the Los Angeles Times reporter who followed Jaminez’s body back to Xexac. “You should go.”

Whatever Jaminez had expected this country to be, whatever L.A. represents in the popular imagination, he could not have anticipated the incongruity of MacArthur Park. A neighborhood of faded elegance and teeming affliction, part oasis, part morass, it has been mythologized in song, anatomized in literature, terrorized by gangs, brutalized by cops, and reinvented by tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Central America’s civil wars. One of the most densely populated neighborhoods west of the Mississippi, yet with a 125-year-old lakeshore park that once drew comparisons to the Champs-Élysées, MacArthur Park manages to be both overburdened and undervalued. To the extent it registers on middle-class radar, the draw is Langer’s, a venerable Jewish deli that has stood at Seventh and Alvarado since the 1940s; to watch first-timers wend their way through the hurly-burly for $14 mounds of pastrami is to witness desire turn to surprise, then confusion and guilt.

Up the Pan-American Highway, through Mexico, and across the gantlet of motion sensors and heat detectors that snared nearly a million migrants on this country’s southern border that year, Jaminez was deposited into MacArthur Park’s warren of brick tenements, discount clinics, and bulletproof liquor stores. He squeezed into a studio apartment with ten other countrymen in a slumlord’s 1913 building and haunted the parking lot of a new Home Depot on Wilshire, the community’s biggest development in years, where he jockeyed for the scarce job that could pay him in a couple of hours what he earned in a week back home. It was a brave if unforgiving gamble, one that much of MacArthur Park—for that matter, a huge swath of L.A.—knows well: to bet everything on the distant hope that a forbidden life in America was still better than the miserable one left behind. Some make it, of course, by virtue of industry, luck, guile. But too many have only expedience to offer, cheap labor for prosperous times. As the U.S. economy began to sputter, then spiral, so did Jaminez. 

He had agreed to pay his lender 15 percent to 20 percent interest, numbers that must have been incalculable abstractions, and in time his debt doubled, and then doubled again, until he owed almost $20,000. Forgetting the admonishments of the village elders, who warned him to resist the lure of alcohol on his journey, Jaminez for the first time began to drink. He could not afford to keep chasing illusions, and he could not afford to admit defeat. On Sixth Street, which intersects Alvarado and functions as MacArthur Park’s other perennial vending corridor, he became known as a bolo—a public drunk—cadging drinks, panhandling change. When word reached Xexac, Isabel begged him to clean up and come home: “He said, ‘How can I? I have to get rid of the debt.’”

So it was that on a warm Labor Day weekend in 2010, this short, brown, sad-faced man of 37 found himself on Sixth, staggering in circles outside the Mundo Dollar Mart. He was not only loaded, his blood-alcohol level in the 12- to 14-drink range, but armed, a folding stainless-steel knife clutched in his right fist. It was a less-than-imposing weapon—the blade was three inches long—but it was bloody, as was Jaminez’s own hand, and he was lurching around, slashing at air, menacing the swell of Sunday shoppers. 

When a witness flagged down three LAPD officers on bicycle patrol, they rode up on a chaotic scene—families running into the street, screaming, scrambling to avoid Jaminez’s reach. A young mother struggled to get past him, her four-year-old daughter in tears, a second child in a stroller. When another woman approached Jaminez, to scold him for frightening the little girl, he responded by brandishing the knife and, she would later tell investigators, making “stabbing motions.”

The most senior of the officers, Frank Hernandez, let his bike fall. He drew his .45-caliber Smith & Wesson. 

“Drop the knife,” Hernandez ordered, first in English, then in Spanish. 

Jaminez weaved, steadying himself against the iron bars of the Dollar Mart parking lot, with a “smirk on his face,” according to one of the other officers, “like he didn’t care.”

“Drop the knife right now,” Hernandez repeated, “or I’m going to shoot you.”

As it is for thousands of Guatemalans in L.A., speakers not just of K’iche’ but Kanjobal and Mam and Tz’utujil, Spanish was Jaminez’s second language. But he knew it well enough to call the man aiming a gun at him a motherfucker. “Kill me, [expletive],” Jaminez said, according to the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners’ 21-page report on the incident. “Kill me. I want to die, [expletive].”

In the 40 seconds that elapsed, it was as if centuries of sorrow and wretchedness, shame and oppression, had unfolded—the moment at which Jaminez, peasant, Indian, alien, came to believe the worst about himself. He was five foot three, 136 pounds, yet he allegedly raised the knife above his head, in a motion that Hernandez compared to a “baseball player throwing a pitch,” and came lunging at the officer. While some witnesses corroborated that account, others thought Jaminez was merely wobbling, too unsteady to pose a threat, and a nearby L.A. firefighter even wondered if Jaminez might not have been attempting to turn the knife on himself. Before Jaminez could take another step, Hernandez squeezed the trigger, twice. A dozen feet separated the two men. 

As erratic as Jaminez’s actions were that afternoon, it seems unlikely that anyone on Sixth Street wished or expected him to die. They would ask why the police did not attempt to disarm him with some less-lethal device, like a stun gun. The LAPD’s answer was blunt: Bicycle cops travel light. They would also ask why the knife could not have been shot out of Jaminez’s hand, an artfully placed round, as if the police were Hollywood gunslingers. Like most law-enforcement agencies, the LAPD trains officers who fear for their safety to aim for the target’s “center mass,” usually the torso—to stop the threat cold, not to wound or to warn. For an instant, Hernandez considered the chest but calculated that a shot to Jaminez’s body risked a through-and-through, the bullet possibly exiting his back and striking an innocent bystander. Hernandez aimed for the head. “It’s more likely a bullet entering the brain is going to stay in the brain,” he would explain, “… hit the skull and stay.”

One slug bore through Jaminez’s left eyebrow. The other pierced his right cheek. He dropped to the sidewalk, facedown. He had $5.12 in his jeans. As blood pooled, the officers cuffed his hands.

 

Asesinos! Asesinos!” The chants began even as Jaminez lay there, under a La Opinión news rack, the crowd stunned and indignant. Murderers, they cried. Pigs. Racists. After the yellow caution tape was removed, someone posted a handwritten sign: “Three policemen assassinated a laborer.” Soon, they were lighting candles of the virgin and scattering flowers, scrawling messages on the pavement in colored chalk. They wrapped a portrait of Jaminez in plastic, mounting it on a cardboard box. They offered his spirit cans of beer. They unfurled Guatemalan flags. They beat drums and chanted on bullhorns: “Todos somos Manuel.” We are all Manuel.

It continued into the next day, and then the day after that, hundreds of mourners and protesters swarming Sixth Street, demanding justice, and in some cases, looking for a fight. They marched a couple of blocks east to the LAPD’s airy new glass-faced Rampart station, a structure that “symbolizes the openness of this department,” as the top brass proclaimed at the building’s inauguration two years earlier. The crowd pelted it with eggs and vandalized the sign, breaking off a hunk of plastic. Police rolled out in riot gear, batons in hand, face shields down. Trash bins were set ablaze and rolled, burning, into the middle of the street. As the police gave chase, debris rained down from apartment buildings—a TV set, an air-conditioning unit. Officers responded with foam projectiles, shooting from street level to rooftop. Confined to a few blocks of the sixth poorest of L.A. County’s 272 neighborhoods and municipalities, the tumult was easy for a city returning from summer vacation to miss. But the LAPD, knowing MacArthur Park’s intricacy, its combustibility, went on citywide tactical alert. “It looked like a mini L.A. riot right here,” says Captain Steven Ruiz, the Rampart Division’s commanding officer. 

On the fourth night, the LAPD’s perceptive new chief, Charlie Beck, appeared at a town hall meeting, pleading for calm. He was heckled. “Asesinos,” the crowd shouted. Although he did himself no favor by initially blaming the unrest on “agitators”—and, indeed, a cadre of revolutionaries and anarchists did add to the fray—Beck soon conceded that the depth of anger and mistrust had caught him by surprise. The neighborhood’s frustration, he told the L.A. Times later that week, “is about so much more than just this shooting. Our challenge is to figure that out and to understand what it is really about. We’re still working to peel back those layers.”

Beck knows MacArthur Park better than any L.A. chief ever has. He was named Rampart’s commanding officer in 2002, after widespread corruption in its gang unit made the division synonymous with scandal, and his success as a reformer was attributed largely to his belief in dialogue and transparency. He was deputy chief in 2007 when LAPD officers crushed a May 1 immigrant-rights rally in MacArthur Park, and watched his predecessor use the fallout to clean house. With the Jaminez shooting now presenting the first crisis of his tenure, Beck zeroed in on the city’s treatment of unlicensed vendors. Although Jaminez was not a vendor, the Rampart bicycle unit bore the primary responsibility of anti-vending enforcement at that time; the officers would ride Sixth Street, giving warnings, issuing citations, confiscating merchandise. That these same officers shot a man whose death seemed so unnecessary (despite a Police Commission ruling that justified the use of force) explained much of the community’s uproar.

“Chief Beck met with me personally, and his marching orders to me were, ‘Captain Ruiz—Steve—you need to build relations with that pocket of the community,” says Ruiz, who had been transferred to Rampart the year before. The chief instructed his captain to work on a political solution, with City Hall, the Guatemalan consulate, and the various grassroots organizations that were purporting to represent the vendors. But in the meantime, in the interest of healing, “rather than go in there and be the big bad wolf again,” says Ruiz, “his marching orders were, ‘I don’t want any enforcement on Sixth Street.’ We pretty much put the blinders on, I guess you could say.”

While Jaminez’s body was shipped home, in a cardboard box labeled “Please Handle with Extreme Care,” and then buried in a casket draped with both Guatemalan and American flags, as if he had fallen in the line of some transnational duty, the street where he died was transformed into a free-trade zone. The corner of Sixth and Bonnie Brae was its main concourse, a vacant lot where a flophouse called the Hotel Californian once stood, until it erupted in flames one too many times and the city ordered it razed in 1995. The fence around it served as a show window; coat hangers, draped with clothes, covered every inch of the chain-link. From there, business spilled west, past the Hotel Barbizon, which prizefighter Jack Dempsey owned in the 1920s, and east, around the 24-hour USA Donuts, where the bus bench and pay phones provided more display cases. Much of what they hawked was secondhand—stuff that other folks would have donated to Goodwill, even tossed—or counterfeit. But on the sidewalks of MacArthur Park, the hodgepodge sustained an ecosystem, an entry-level marketplace in which anyone could afford to participate, as buyer or seller. 

“I would take the bus in the morning to Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, to the yard sales, then return in the afternoon with brand-name clothing to sell,” says a wistful Francisco Aguirre, who spent eight years in front of the Hotel Californian before he would relocate to Little Street. On weekends, he could count on clearing $40 in a couple of hours, a return on investment he attributes to his enthusiasm for offering discounts. “If somebody didn’t have money, I’d tell them, ‘Go ahead, take it, pay me when you return,’” says Aguirre, a 59-year-old grandfather from Guatemala. “The important thing is that the client leaves with the merchandise. At least that’s my mentality. I only went to elementary school, but in business I think maybe I’m very advanced.”

What could look from the outside like disorder, much as the Lower East Side must have appeared to uptown New Yorkers at the turn of an earlier century, was guided by its own customs and hierarchy. By reassembling week after week, year after year, the vendors had devised a system for allocating space and resolving disputes; neighbor looked after neighbor, and the most senior enjoyed what were as close to durable property rights as you can have while possessing no property rights at all. As much as some shop owners resented the intrusion from competitors with no overhead, others welcomed the foot traffic and social foundation—because of the vendors, Sixth Street had become a destination. “On Sixth, everyone knew me,” says Laura Carpio, who sold fragrances for a decade on the curb near Jack in the Box. “They’d all say, ‘Hello, señora de los perfumes.’” 

In a community as distressed as MacArthur Park, to vend is to, indeed, rise in status. So many desperate people—the drugged, the ill—lug their lives around the streets that someone who actually has a fungible product to offer from a wheeled conveyance is less an outlaw than an impresario: the shopping cart as a symbol of upward mobility. 

Still, as news of the LAPD’s moratorium traveled, so many vendors descended on Sixth Street, some from other Southern California counties, that the encampment soon teetered on the unsustainable. Merchandise blanketed the pavement, wrapping around parking meters, hanging from trees. Vans pulled to the curb, conducting business right out of sliding doors. Carne asada sizzled over live mesquite, rolled in on shopping carts enveloped in tinfoil. To wade through was to brave a shoulder-to-shoulder jostle. Even driving past meant traversing an obstacle course, the crowds so deep that baby carriages had to detour into traffic. Alarmed by what had been unleashed, the LAPD began documenting the bedlam; aerial shots were the only way to take it all in. At peak hours, from about 6 P.M. to 8 P.M., maybe 350 vendors presided over a three-block stretch of Sixth Street, their clientele soaring into the thousands—probably more people per square foot, on most days, than anyplace else in the city. “The monster,” concedes Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes MacArthur Park, “did occur.”

In an attempt to restore local control, a neighborhood committee calling itself HOLA, for Hispanics Organized in Los Angeles, created a Sixth Street carnet—a credential the vendors could wear as a badge. The group had recognized, in the aftermath of Jaminez’s death, an opportunity to address the broader issues of poverty and neglect in MacArthur Park; if the vendors were organized, HOLA figured, they could be part of the solution, not just the problem. HOLA united about 60 or 70 of them, and together they lobbied to ensure that the original Sixth Streeters, the ones who had endured the LAPD’s pressure before the reprieve, would get to shape whatever remedy the city adopted. “This carnet was going to give us a simple way of identifying who was coming from the outside,” says Osvelí Orozco, HOLA’s founder and president. “The project was for those on Sixth, not for people who didn’t live in the district.” When HOLA ran the carnet by Councilman Reyes, according to Orozco, “the councilman said, ‘I find this interesting. Qué bueno. This is quite a good idea.’” When Reyes discovered that the vendors were being charged $35 for the credential—and that his name appeared on it, as an official stamp of approval—he bristled. “This was an individual who was using my signature to give him a certain amount of legitimacy, to where he could collect fees,” Reyes says. “That’s just not right. We had to ask him to basically stop it.”

Even before the no-enforcement edict, Sixth Street was vulnerable to exploitation. A clique of the sprawling 18th Street gang has long claimed the corridor, its XV3 logo inked and etched into everything from stop signs to discarded mattresses. As early as the 1990s, the gang’s head-shaved enforcers had begun helping themselves to a cut of the neighborhood’s cash economy, collecting “rent” from just about anyone selling anything on the street. In 2007, when a sidewalk DVD vendor could not come up with his weekly $50 tax, the gang sent Giovanni Macedo onto Sixth Street, armed with a .22. Macedo was thinking, as he would later put it, “I’ll get my respect.” From a step or two away, he opened fire. The vendor was critically injured but lived. The infant next to him, three-week-old Luis Angel Garcia, did not. A bullet had pierced his heart. Even in the underworld, Macedo’s blunder was an outrage, not to mention a source of unwelcome attention. The Mexican Mafia—the California--born prison gang that imposes taxes of its own on revenues of L.A. street gangs—ordered him killed. While hiding out in Tijuana, Macedo was strangled and dumped in a ravine, but he survived; he returned to testify against 18th Street this past April, in exchange for a 51-year sentence. “That’s basically it,” Macedo says, “respect.” 

As Sixth Street mushroomed, Reyes’s office labored to find an alternative location for the vendors, to salvage the cultural and economic framework, minus the unrulier byproducts. The councilman ran into roadblocks at every turn. Landlords objected. Fire marshals balked. The vendors themselves had split into factions, some along nationalist lines that have cleaved Central America for ages. Reyes had lost trust in HOLA, and HOLA’s leaders, new to the machinations of City Hall, had come to suspect that they were being squeezed out by savvier, more assimilated activists. Meanwhile, the LAPD’s patience was running low. What officials thought would be a grace period, maybe a month or two of looking the other way, had stretched from 2010 into 2011. “We were trying to re-create that zócalo, the town square where the villagers gather, but we’re still struggling with a lack of understanding,” says Reyes, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA. “People who are not familiar with this kind of environment only see a massive group on the sidewalk creating a mess. They don’t understand the need.”

The clock winding down on the search for a new site, the city chose the one street it could.

 

On a Saturday morning last December, the day of the grand opening, Dolores Rivera set off for an address she had never heard of, la street pequeña. Her apartment is only five blocks away from the Little Street market, but she found herself going in loops, peeking around corners, peering down alleys, growing more frantic as the minutes ticked by. “Can you imagine, I’ve lived here for 12 years,” says Rivera, who is from El Salvador and sells women’s and children’s clothes. “They even gave us a flyer that had a map, and I still got lost. I went looking and looking and couldn’t find it.”

Little Street’s unobtrusiveness, of course, is precisely what made it attractive to official L.A. If it was jammed with peddlers, no shop owners would be inconvenienced, and if it was cordoned off to cars, no traffic would be disrupted. The elementary school would be closed, its front gates locked for the weekend, and the Burlington Wilshire apartment complex had its main entrance on the other side of the building, leaving the Art-Gricultural Open Air Market without any impediments. Unless nobody ever found it. Even the name turned out to be something of a misnomer. The artisan part was represented by just one vendor, Doña Rosa, whose family imports elegant needlepoint tapestries from Guatemala; they have prices to match, from $100 to $250, close to a week’s wages in MacArthur Park. As for the agricultural part, the original farmer came and left, then another farmer gave it a try and bailed; after a few months, there was none. It did not help that half a mile away, on the western edge of Mac-Arthur Park, hundreds of pounds of fruit and vegetables were given away every Sunday. The official market was competing with the food program of the Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, a neighborhood group formed in the aftermath of the LAPD’s 2007 May Day clampdown.

The absence of produce was a particular source of worry for the Little Street managers. The city had secured an $85,000 grant—to cover, among other things, the permits and canopies and portable bathrooms—yet the money was coming from the Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Without healthy food, the legal market was itself in danger of becoming illicit. 

“So what’s the lesson?” says Ardon, the Little Street manager. “Until the city has a plan, a real plan from A to Z, it’s going to be difficult.” 

The transition to Little Street had been orderly, almost genteel. In the months before its debut, LAPD officers canvassed Sixth Street, passing out flyers. They explained that a new market was opening, where vendors could sell without risk or intimidation, and warned that the law outside that perimeter would once again be enforced. Green metal signs were bolted to lampposts on every block, citing code section 42.00(b) and noting, in English and Spanish, that a violation is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. By the time police began their sweeps in December—15 months after pulling back—the city’s most rollicking sidewalk market folded with a whimper. Almost overnight, Sixth Street was clear.

Instead of relocating to Little Street, though, most of those peddlers struck out on their own, primarily to Alvarado, seeking the self-governing ruckus of the vending frontier. They distrusted any remedy imposed from above. For starters, anyone selling food on Little Street was going to need health permits—not an unreasonable expectation for a city-sanctioned market—but the countless bacon-wrapped hot-dog ladies and mayo-slathered corn-on-the-cob guys were never going to bother with such formalities. The DVD vendors, their existence predicated on intellectual theft, were not even eligible (nor was the bootleg porn, often displayed alongside the pirated Disney and Pixar hits). The used-merchandise peddlers faced yet another set of issues: To qualify for Little Street, they needed to apply for a secondhand-dealer license, as if they were running a pawnshop. That meant fingerprinting and background checks, not to mention a $561.50 annual permit—a bureaucratic hoop that sounded more like a precursor to deportation.

Even vendors initially drawn to Little Street, who longed to be recognized as upstanding businesspeople, soon trickled back out. For six or seven weekends, in December and January, Ofelia Ruiz arrived with her socks, hundreds of pairs stuffed into a folding grocery basket, most of them with USA logos on the leggings. She sells a four-pack for $5—the livelihood that has sustained her for the better part of 19 years—but on Little Street, she had no buyers. If she sold one pack, she was lucky. Her best day, she sold three. “I want to be there, I do, of course,” she says one Sunday afternoon, on the same Alvarado corner as before. “Even if I just sold half of what I sell out here on the street, I’d be there, for the tranquility, the security. But I can’t. If I want to eat, I have to sell socks.”

At various times, Ruiz has found regular work, in sweatshops, in dry cleaners, once as a janitor in a Santa Monica hospital. But when each job, inevitably, ended, she returned to street vending, which for all its uncertainty remains the most stable trade she has known. To hear her tell her sock-selling creation story is to receive a dose of capitalist exuberance, with a splash of evangelical fervor. “I was down to my last $20, sitting on the steps, asking myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” says Ruiz, who is 52. “Then something told me—somebody, the Lord?—well, He told me, ‘Get up, go down to Alvarado, go to El Piojito.’” That was the Latin American discount store at the southeastern corner of the park. “So, I walk in, and I don’t even know what I’m looking for, I’m just there because a voice told me to go, and then all of a sudden I see that they’re selling socks, baby socks, on special, 30 cents a pair.” Still not trusting all the signs, she decides to play it safe, investing half her money. Ten dollars buys her 33 pairs. She brings them back to her apartment building and sells them, door to door, for $1.50 each. Voosh: $50. Now giddy, she returns to El Piojito and sees that they have athletic socks on sale, 12 pairs for $1. Except there is a catch, a limit of ten dozen per person. So she rounds up friends and family, five of them, to help her structure the transaction, then she walks out with 600 pairs in a shopping cart, which she proceeds to mark up to $5 a dozen—$3,000 worth of hosiery.

“Ah, it was beautiful,” says Ruiz, who sits on an upturned milk crate, her inventory leaning against a bus shelter. “But you have to want it. You have to know you can do it.”

If she were in a different line of work, Ruiz might be on a speaker’s tour, offering inspiration to young entrepreneurs (though perhaps not to the folks from El Piojito, which went out of business not long ago). Instead, Ruiz has to keep one eye on her socks and one out for the police, who over the years have cited her, she guesses, at least 12 or 13 times. The worst of her run-ins, she says, resulted in jail—a day and a night behind bars—plus an $800 fine, three years’ probation, and 120 hours of community service. “And on top of all that,” says Ruiz, shaking her head, “they confiscated all my merchandise.”

 

They packed the city council chamber by the hundreds, street vendors from every corner of town, organized, empowered, and now jubilant. By a 104 vote, the council had approved a pilot program to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. As the crowd roared, community activists claimed victory on behalf of an awakening immigrant population long subjected to harassment and scapegoating. “This,” a spokesperson declared, “has national significance.”

The moment of triumph came years before Little Street, years even before Manuel Jaminez entered this country. It was 1994, and to get to that point, the vendors had waged a grueling seven-year campaign for recognition, unprecedented in its ambition. The council’s blessing was a counterpoint to decades of anti-vending legislation, in the 1970s (to restrict flower stands), in the 1950s (newspaper hawkers), in the 1930s (downtown hucksters), in the 1920s (tamale wagons); as early as 1906, a crackdown on peddlers had filled an L.A. courtroom with a “motley array of representatives of at least a half-score of nations,” as the press at the time put it. Now the vendors had official status: They were pioneers, crafting a model for economic development in post-riot L.A.

Rather than trusting the vendors to do what they do best, however, the city imposed a maze of restrictions. Vending would be allowed in eight designated districts, but the vendors themselves would need to round up signatures from at least 20 percent of the merchants and residents on each block, then present their proposal to a council-appointed advisory committee, which in turn would forward the plan to the city’s Board of Public Works. In the end, only two districts were created and only one became functional—in MacArthur Park, at Seventh and Alvarado—and by the time all the paperwork had been processed, another five years had elapsed. The MacArthur Park district had its own byzantine requirements, regulating what, where, and when the vendors could sell. Hoping to create a touristy folk market, akin to downtown’s historic Olvera Street, the management directed vendors to focus on tamales and traditional crafts. They were outfitted with identification badges and lacquered wooden carts, with colorful canopies and spoked wheels, and lined up in a row, ordered not to move from their assigned spots. Even with subsidies for all the permits and equipment, each vendor had to pony up $700.

When a law professor named Gregg Kettles took an interest in the project, making regular visits to interview the participants, he recognized a cruel juxtaposition. 

On the west side of Alvarado, in the city--sanctioned zone, he found maybe half a dozen forlorn vendors, credentials pinned on their chests, tethered to their expensive rigs. “The MacArthur Park legal vending district,” he would later write in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, “had the feel of a moribund petting zoo.” Meanwhile, on the east side of Alvarado, for all the licensed vendors to see, an illicit sidewalk swap meet was thriving. No matter how many times the police ran them off, observed Kettles, who is now deputy counsel to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the “illegal vendors would re-emerge like flowers after the spring thaw.”

The legal vendors are gone from the west side of Alvarado. The MacArthur Park vending project folded in 2005, after $1 million in grants and donations. What took 12 years to create lasted only 6. But on the east side of Alvarado, the same unlicensed vendors are there—only now they are subverting the Little Street experiment. They swell on weekends, as commerce throughout the neighborhood does, but even on weekdays they are like landmarks, clocking in as dependably as someone with a lock to turn and a light to switch on. By 5:30 A.M., rain or shine, the orange man is in front of La Original Botica del Pueblo pharmacy, a shopping cart full of fruit; he sweeps the pavement with a broom, then sets to squeezing his oranges on a hand press, $2.50 for a 16-ounce cup of juice. By 5:30 P.M., near the Just 98¢ Store, the chicken ladies are out in full force; $3.50 gets you a working--class Guatemalan dinner in a Styrofoam box: drumstick, chow mein, and pacaya rellena, a battered palm fritter. As any laissez-faire, pro-business apostle would recognize, the unfettered marketplace is a formidable creature, inventive, adaptable, resilient, responsive to supply and demand. The peddler whose schedule and location and product line are dictated by the government will always be at a disadvantage, especially if the free market is raging around the corner. 

“We’re here following the rules, and they’re out there doing what they want,” says Dolores Rivera, who sunk $2,000 into apparel for her Little Street stall, gambling that a wide selection of Hello Kitty shirts and Express jeans would attract customers. “I feel bad—they have needs just like us—but if they’re allowed to sell out there, the people will never want to come here.”

Whatever course the LAPD follows, its efforts will likely appear both excessive and insufficient. Forced by the city’s sprawl to do most policing by car, the Rampart Division’s patrol units are too busy chasing radio calls to pay the vendors much heed. A dozen times a day, a hundred times a week, they drive past the Alvarado promenade, ignoring the telltale umbrellas and smoldering skirt steak, on their way to something more important. The Special Problems Unit, which has picked up where the bicycle patrols left off, does most of the shooing, sometimes scowling from the driver’s seat, sometimes hopping out to send a vendor packing. But they are just nine officers working three extended shifts a week, in a division that covers 5.5 square miles and 165,000 people. When the peddlers see them coming, many just disappear into the crowd, preferring to abandon their wares than have contact with the authorities. The police have no use for unclaimed merchandise, unless they can confiscate DVDs, which the Motion Picture Association of America sends a courier to pick up; the industry loses more to piracy in MacArthur Park than anywhere else in Los Angeles. 

When officers do detain a recalcitrant vendor, one who persists in returning to the same spot, they face the contradiction of enforcing the law in a community that itself lacks legal standing. A vendor with a valid ID is a rarity, and without a verifiable name and address, the police cannot issue a ticket. That means choosing between two extremes, a warning and an arrest: One accomplishes little, the other ties up resources and riles the community.

 

In the glare of a hazy Easter afternoon, an LAPD helicopter circled over MacArthur Park, blades rattling above the Sunday throngs. On the east side of Alvarado, a black-and-white squad car screeched to a sideways stop, blocking traffic. A second followed, then a third. Dozens of vendors scrambled, scooping up their blankets and tarps from the sidewalk, merchandise wrapped inside—a ritualized escape. The officers piled out, weapons drawn, scanning the stampede from behind sunglasses. Finally, they spotted him, a doughy-faced guy in an Affliction T-shirt, scooting away with a hot-dog cart. 

They ordered him to stop. He did. They ordered him to put his hands up. He did. They ordered him to drop to his knees. He did. They told him that whatever he did next would determine his fate—one wrong move and he would be dead. He scarcely dared to peek over his shoulder, all those pistols trained on his back. The other vendors had stopped running and, instead, were now gathering around, trying to decipher what was unfolding. 

“I need everyone to stand back,” one officer snapped. The crowd was growing, curiosity turning to skepticism. The police called for backup.

As the officers later tried to explain to the onlookers, the LAPD had received a report of a man with a gun. The one on the ground, Hersson Sanchez, was said to fit the description. He was 34, from Honduras. They cuffed him and marched him to the back side of the Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, at the corner of Wilshire and Alvarado. They frisked him. They rifled through his pockets. At least a hundred, maybe 200 people had packed the parking lot and drive-thru lane, straining for a glimpse. “Get back,” another officer commanded, palm raised.

Other officers donned latex gloves and started dismantling the hot-dog cart. Piece by piece, they dumped everything in the Yoshinoya garbage bin, the meat, the foil, the ketchup, the peppers, even the Spanish-language Jesús Salva copy of the New Testament that was tucked amid the condiments. 

“Why do you have to do that?” yelled a woman in the crowd. “That’s not even his cart!”

By then a dozen officers were on hand, and by their sighs and headshakes, it was clear that the whole operation was going downhill fast. They had nothing on Sanchez, a case of mistaken identity. They cut him loose—not even a ticket—and beat a hasty retreat. The owner of the cart, a grandmother in a pink sweater, tried to salvage what she could, digging through trash with tremulous hands, pausing only to stroke her heart. She had been grilling hot dogs that afternoon outside the Librería Cristiana, as she has for years, when the police arrived. Next to her was Sanchez, a shirt peddler. As the vendors began scurrying, he saw that she was struggling to whisk her cart to safety. “She’s poor, she’s a woman, she’s from my country—I was trying to help her run away,” explained Sanchez, who attends Los Angeles City College, where he studies international business. “It wasn’t a big deal.” 

A week later, they were both back out on Alvarado, and again, the week after that.

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