Sunday, September 20, 2009
Elote (Corn) War & Amnesty
I came across an interesting article in Crain's Chicago Business News, as well as the Reader which discussed the issue of the proliferation of unlicensed street vendors in Chicago. Many have dubbed the conflict as the elote (corn) war, because of the many vendors who sell corn.
There are many sides to this issue.
On one hand, I have respect for the hard working vendors who are doing their best to support their families. And of course, as someone who values economic freedom and is not a fan of Chicago's heavy handed licensing regimen, I am not particularly troubled by their activities.
On the other hand, I am troubled by the very selective enforcement of law in Chicago. Restaurants in Chicago that do not adhere to the city's and state's licensing, health and tax codes are quickly fined and shut down. And if I choose to practice real estate without a license, I too would be fined and shut down in no time. And until their is a level playing field, the restaurants and other businesses that fund the bloated city government will not be able to compete with businesses that are not burdened by high taxes and heavy regulations.
So, outside of the context of a universal de-regulation that applied to all businesses in Chicago, the only rational responses would be to immediately crack down on the vendors, or as many have suggested we should impose a regimen of licenses and regulation on the street vendors, as they have done in NYC. That is a move that I would certainly support, but until we arrive at that point, the rule of law dictates that the city has to crack down on these vendors.
So, this brings up the question - why doesn't the Daley Administration, which excels in taxing, ticketing and regulating its residents into oblivion, apply its own rules?
The ugly answer is that in Chicago (and much of the country) ethno-politics trumps the rule of law. In this case, King Richard Daley II fears the response of Latino aldermen, congressmen and community organizations, not to mention the vendors themselves.
This also represents the core of our immigration issues. I am for a rational and selective amnesty of productive immigrants who do not use welfare. But, until we arrive at that amnesty, the widespread non-enforcement of immigration laws is contrary to the rule of law.
But, what's most troubling is that both an amnesty, as well as our systematic non-enforcement, represent a phenomena that is at the core of most of the social, political and economic ailments of Latin-America: the extent to which large segments of the populace disregards the law, overwhelms the capacity of the state to enforce the law. This is seen in the tax evasion, corruption and crime that plagues Mexico from the poorest barrios to the wealthy, political elite. This is seen in the state's inability to curb dangerous construction and control the eloteros that proliferate in Mexico's major cities. And in the case of immigration, both amnesty and non-enforcement may be humane and practical options, but they are examples of law breakers, rather than law makers shaping the law; hardly a good precedent for the future.
Vendor issue rolls toward compromise
A long-running battle over the largely unregulated street vendors in Chicago's Hispanic neighborhoods is edging toward a truce.
The persistent controversy — dubbed "the elote wars," after the Spanish word for corn, a popular street-vendor item — pits pushcart entrepreneurs against business and community leaders who bemoan streets and sidewalks heavy with vendor traffic.
The conflict has resisted settlement attempts before, largely because of political and cultural influences, but now a new alderman and a new business leader in Little Village are shepherding a reconciliation effort.
Not true, says Joan Coogan, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. "The specific details of implementation have always been the big stumbling block," she says. "We're looking for consensus among the alderman."
Both pro-vendor forces and the groups who've tried to rein them in say they support the concept of cooperative kitchens, which would be opened at strategic locales where street-vendor carts are most popular.
After paying a small fee, perhaps monthly, the vendors would use the licensed kitchens as sanitary spaces to prepare the products they peddle. The kitchens would also serve as home bases, making it easier for city and state health and revenue authorities to regulate the number of vendors and where they can work.
But how many people would get vendor licenses and what those licenses would allow them to sell are sticky points that have gummed up the works in the past.
Each side blames the other for the lack of a resolution, but both finger City Hall as the largest impediment to progress, a charge Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration hotly disputes.
"The city has wanted to eliminate the vendors, but hasn't, because there would be heavy public fallout over doing that," declares Nick Valadez, an attorney who has represented street vendors and supports their views. "The mayor's unwilling to take the heat on this."
At the helm of this renewed effort at peace are George Cardenas, elected 12th Ward alderman in February, and Salvador Pedroza, new president of the 26th Street Chamber of Commerce.
Both are Mexican-American small business owners who immigrated to Chicago when they were young. While Messrs. Cardenas, 36, and Pedroza, 44, don't want to get rid of vendors, they do seek a compromise ordinance.
"We are drowning in carts out here on 26th Street," Mr. Cardenas says.
Since his election, the alderman has been pushing the idea of settling the controversy through co-op kitchens. He believes the kitchens will go a long way toward solving the health, sanitation and overcrowding problems vendors pose.
"This way they can be licensed and regulated like a restaurant kitchen and we can track sales tax and things like that," says Mr. Cardenas, an accountant.
But he's well aware of the heavy influence of the Mexican culture in sustaining the eloteros.
"I am an immigrant. I was illegal when I first came here," he notes. "No one can say I'm immigrant-bashing. It's just that the cons are heavier than the pros. We have to get the vendors into co-ops and help them do this, so they can move on. Street vending should be temporary."
Mr. Pedroza, who owns Economy Roofing & Windows on West Ogden Avenue, has formed a committee and is recruiting neighborhood chambers of commerce from across the city to pressure alderman and the city to craft a workable street vendor ordinance and get it passed.
"We gotta do something, because the problem is getting out of hand," he says.
He blames the over-saturation on "vendor lords," who buy 10 to 20 carts and hire people to run them on the streets, paying them about $30 to $40 a day.
"Nobody has really wanted to take the lead," Mr. Pedroza says. "But I think it's better to face it, and try to do something now, before it gets even worse."
Exact numbers are not available, but an estimated 500 to 1,000 vendors work Chicago streets during warm weather months.
In addition to the 26th Street strip, street vendors ply their trade in many neighborhoods throughout the city, though several wards — including the 13th and 14th — ban the practice, and the carts aren't allowed downtown.
In other big cities, such as New York, vendor regulations not only exist but are strictly enforced.
Chicago requires permits and sanitation training for street vendors selling fruit, juices and corn, but enforcement is spotty. While the sale of meat and diary products is forbidden, it's a common practice.
Many vendors mistakenly assume the license allows them to prepare their offerings on-site and in their carts. It does not, Mr. Valadez says.
But while he agrees with the prohibition of preparing and selling meats and cheeses, he disagrees with the city's rules against preparing fruit, juices and corn on-site.
"Why can't they husk the corn and boil it and cut open the mango and put it on a stick?" he says.
Mr. Valadez disputes the city's contention that such practices pose serious health threats, noting, "Hey, the city does this all the time at Navy Pier."
Adelina Lara, 48, has been a street vendor for 10 years, selling corn, lemonade and rice water at 26th Street and Kedzie Boulevard. She is also president of the vendors' union, known as the Ambulant Vendors Assn.
Ms. Lara says legitimate vendors would indeed welcome regulation.
"We want a law to protect us," she says. "Right now, we get only a temporary permit that just allows us to sell at festivals. The rest of the year, we have to worry all the time."
Three hundred vendors belong to Ms. Lara's group, which is organized through the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn). The group helps members secure permits and get to sanitation school.
She's a supporter of co-op kitchens and has discussed the issue with Mr. Cardenas.
Alderman Ricardo Munoz (22nd) is another backer the co-op kitchen idea.
"The kitchens are a good idea because they'd give the small entrepreneurs the opportunity not to have to invest a lot of capital, but still produce their products in a regulated, licensed and sanitary facility," he says.
But Mr. Munoz, who has held office for nine years, also blames the mayor's office for a lack of progress in regulating vendors.
"There've been several attempts to regulate this industry, including last year, and they've always ended up meeting with resistance from the mayor's office," he says. One conundrum: who should have the authority to decide which corners vendors can work.
Ms. Coogan says logistics have been a problem, but it's not an issue limited to City Hall. She was recently in New York, where she chatted up a street vendor about how that city licenses and regulates him.
"He thought I was crazy," she says. "Obviously, this is something other cities do and we should be able to as well."
©2003 by Crain Communications Inc.