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Heather Somerville and Mariana Mora/MEDILL

Chicago's street vendors battle the cold, high fines and even jail time to make a living.

Chicago street vendors demand relief from high fines, police crackdown

by Mariana Mora and Heather Somerville
Feb 18, 2010


Heather Somerville/MEDILL

Alberto Reyes, an unlicensed street vendor on the Southwest Side, said heavy police enforcement on 47th Street has forced him to move his business to parking lots and alleys. He sells tamales from the trunk of his car.

Chicago’s street vendors are asking the city for a moratorium on laws against selling prepared foods from street carts. In response to a recent police crackdown on 47th Street, previously one of Chicago’s busiest vendor corridors, street vendors have organized a campaign to demand that the city offer licenses for what historically has been an illegal business.

 Street vendors will protest at the office of Ald. George Cardenas (12th) at 4 p.m. Monday to demand relief from police who are stepping up enforcement on the Southwest Side. Augusto Aquino of the Street Vendors Association of Chicago, the group organizing the demonstration, said vendors want an indefinite moratorium on city laws so they can legally sell prepared food.  

 “We’re asking for the opportunity to work under the laws of the city,” Aquino said.  

 Unlicensed street vendors in Chicago play a daily game of hide-and-seek with police and health inspectors, often facing fines up to $800 and arrest for operating an illegal business. The city allows food vendors to sell only unpeeled and uncut produce and does not offer licenses for prepared foods. For most of the vendors on 18th, 26th and 47th streets, this means operating an illegal business.   

 Alberto Reyes used to sell tamales on 47th Street, but now he sells from his car in alleys and parking lots, hiding from police. He said he feels “like a criminal.”  

 And in the eyes of the law, he is.  

 “This is illegal and it’s illegal for him to be out there,” said a Chicago Police sergeant assigned to the neighborhood.    

 The sergeant, who asked not to be named, said fewer street vendors are operating in the area because of increased police enforcement and complaints from local businesses. But he expects vendors will return in the spring.  

 “It’s a recurring problem, and it will always be there,” he said. “As soon as the weather gets warm, they all come out. It’s one of those recurring problems that will never go away.”  

 At Wednesday’s meeting of the Street Vendors Association, members discussed holding weekly demonstrations at aldermen’s offices. They have also begun circulating a petition to change the city’s street vending laws, and have collected more than 150 signatures. Vendors are targeting churches and religious leaders for support and sending letters to police and local businesses.  

 Their campaign is indicative of growing activism to reform business licensing policies in cities with high concentrations of street vendors. Chicago vendors will join others from across the country to discuss reform strategies at the first-ever national vendors conference, organized by the Urban Justice Center of New York, on May 14 and 15 in Los Angeles.  

 “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said Sean Basinski of the Urban Justice Center. “The timing is ripe, in that there’s an increased awareness of what’s taking place nationally. Vendors are starting to increase their political consciousness.”  

Chicago has 1,589 licensed street vendors, said Efrat Stein, spokeswoman Department of Business Affairs and Licensing and she expects that applications will increase in the spring. The city does not have data on unlicensed vendors; the Street Vendors Association has 70 members.  

 The city also offers licenses to sell food prepared in a kitchen that has been approved by health inspectors. That license is most often given to hot dog vendors, Stein said.  

 Martin Unzuet, director of the Chicago Community and Workers' Rights, a group dedicated to organizing immigrant workers, said the city’s laws discriminate against ethnic foods.   

 “How is a hot dog different from a tamale? How is a pretzel different from a chicharron?” Unzueta asked.  

 Unlicensed street vendors generally prepare their food at home or at their street carts.  

 “This is a health issue,” Stein said. “The reason is to protect consumers from getting ill.”  

 Martha Lopez, owner of Los Dos Laredos Mexican restaurant in Little Village, said street vendors should abide by the same health codes all restaurants have to.  

 “I think it’s unsafe, and I think it’s unfair,” Lopez said. “I know that they’re hard working people, and they’re not out there stealing from anyone, so I applaud their efforts. However, I don’t know how safe their food is."