Photo: Getty Images/Marcus Yam
In the eternal tug-of-war between LA and NYC for “best coast” status, Los Angeles has a clear edge in one category: Its street food culture. In New York, where I live, the best you can scrounge up streetside without enduring an endless subway trek to the outer boroughs is a gummy knish or a dirty water dog. The thing I look forward to most on visits to LA is stuffing my face with its incredible street cart food that ranges from spicy, authentic seafood tacos to juicy pork dumplings, and seemingly everything in between.
LA’s vibrant street eats, while immensely popular and heavily frequented by locals and tourists alike, have nevertheless been rendered illegal, and are often harassed or fined by authorities. On Monday, California governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 946, aka the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, into law. Effective on the first day of the new year, SB 946 regulates street vending practices and aims to bring street cooks out from the shadows and recognize them as the important contributors to local economies that they’ve long been.Right now, LA doesn’t have any licensing systems in place for street vendors. That means that the carts have technically been operating illegally, leading to sporadic standoffs between the city and the vendors; earlier this summer, Hollywood cracked down on street vending, establishing a so-called “special enforcement zone” along Hollywood Boulevard. Physical attacks on street carts have been reported as well, such as in July, when a dog walker in Hollywood literally overturned a local elotero’s establishment.With SB 946, which was first introduced by state senator Ricardo Lara in February, vendors will receive important protections under the law. While local city governments will establish their own licensing systems for the vendors, SB 946 will ensure that cities cannot ban vending in parks; that cities cannot determine where vendors can operate, unless there is a health, safety, or welfare concern; and that street vendors are no longer required to ask permission from adjacent businesses to operate.Street vendor advocacy groups have lauded the governor’s decision. The East LA Community Corporation, which along with the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign worked with senator Lara to promote SB 946, released a statement that reads, in part, “Sidewalk vending is an important and celebrated part of California’s culture and economy. Vendors were unfairly denied access to the formal economy and have suffered the harms of local criminalization. Every day that vendors go out to sell, they run the risk of confiscation, jail, and even deportation. With SB 946 this will change for vendors across California.”The new legislature will help protect an ever-more-vulnerable sect of California’s population: The immigrants who overwhelmingly make up the state’s community of vendors. And, as ELACC’s statement points out, the law will also promote the interests of another vulnerable population: women. Advocates estimate that 80 percent of LA’s street vendors are female.Women-owned or not, selling steaming tamales or ice-cold shave-ice slushies, the city’s street businesses will find safe haven in the new year. And god willing, I’ll soon be there to chow down on their newly legal offerings.