Taco Hell

Mexican food vendors circle the wagons as community activists fume over neighborhood blight

Hernan Rivera unpuckers a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola from his lips and nods in the direction of a family finishing a late-night meal at his mobile hot dog stand on McDowell Road, just west of 35th Avenue.

"Tourists from Mexico," he says, as they stroll into a dimly lighted corner of an adjacent parking lot to pose for snapshots. "They're probably visiting someone who lives over this way."

"It's almost all Mexican over here," he adds, sweeping an arm in the air. "Maybe even 90 percent. That's why this is a good place for me. They know they can get good food like they get back home, good Sonoran-style hot dogs."

Vicki Chriswell (below) says backyard mobile food vending operations like this one have added to blight in her west Phoenix neighborhood.
Vicki Chriswell (below) says backyard mobile food vending operations like this one have added to blight in her west Phoenix neighborhood.
Activists say backyard mobile food vending operations like this one have added to blight in her west Phoenix neighborhood.
Paolo Vescia
Activists say backyard mobile food vending operations like this one have added to blight in her west Phoenix neighborhood.

A steady flow of customers is proof enough. At nearly midnight on a summer weeknight, all of the businesses are closed in the strip mall beside La Reyna Bakery where Rivera has been setting up shop almost nightly for the past three years. But his "Nogales Hot Dogs," which occupies a grayish splash of light beneath the bakery's sign, is hopping with a mix of friends, family and customers chatting quietly in Spanish or lingering in front of a glowing television perched on a box.

No sooner have the tourists piled into a van bearing Mexican tags and departed than a young Hispanic man pulls up in a pickup truck and orders Rivera's specialty, a bean-and-onion-smothered dog to go. He loads it with salsa verde and peppers and is back in his truck in less than two minutes.

"Faster than McDonald's," Rivera says ruefully. "That's pretty good."

Rivera is 28 and was born in the United States but lived in Mexico until he was 15. The hot dog stand -- a campground arrangement of plastic tables, chairs and a cooler of Mexican soda on ice -- is a promising first step toward owning a restaurant and a necessary second job to support his young family.

But to some longtime residents of this west Phoenix neighborhood, Rivera's operation and dozens of others that have sprouted along West McDowell Road and Van Buren Street in recent years are the harbingers of neighborhood evil.

"When the vendors started coming in six to eight years ago, it really started going downhill," says Vicki Chriswell, a blunt-spoken veteran of struggles against gangs, drugs, crime and social decay in the neighborhood adjacent to Rivera's hot dog stand. "They started playing loud music at night and putting out all kinds of smoke from these outdoor grills."

This has compounded the sense that neighborhoods are being devoured by blight and flooded by immigration, legal and illegal. The quieter, less-traveled residential streets are filled with immigrants packed into run-down houses too small to hold them. Dilapidated garages and hastily built add-ons have been pressed into service as substandard living quarters. To make room for the newcomers, new construction and renovations often speed along without building permits or any kind of safety inspections. The human influx fills the alleys with junk and overflowing household trash. Yards are stuffed with vans, trucks and cars.

And behind some backyard fences, people are cooking large quantities of food over open fires and grills and loading it into vans and food wagons.

"When we first saw these pressures, violations of building codes and buildings going up without permits," says Alma Williams, founder of the Green Gables Neighborhood Association of east central Phoenix, between 24th and 32nd streets just north of McDowell, "we'd call the city and expect something to happen, but it never really did. There's just been no enforcement. The city has let this go and let it go all these years until it has become one huge neighborhood cloud."

For much of the past decade, that cloud has generated considerable neighborhood lightning over ludicrous city policies and practices preventing effective enforcement. Despite neighborhood pleas, the mayor and city council have resisted proposals that would allow city inspectors to crack down on violators without having to wait for neighborhood complaints. They've refused to hire inspectors for after-hours and weekend duty, when some violations occur. And they've held to practices that discourage inspectors in different city departments from notifying one another about violations of codes in their respective areas.

Unpermitted building is a good example.

Tammy Perkins, head of the city's Neighborhood Services Department (NSD), which handles many areas of neighborhood code enforcement, says that, generally, her inspectors cannot notify the city's Development Services Department, which has authority over such matters, when they see illegal additions being added to houses. And once the buildings are up, NSD can do little about them.

What's more, inspectors from one department don't have access to the computer files of other departments' inspectors. So there's no easy way to share information about property violations.

These frustrating policy fiascoes have helped turn complaints about mobile vendors into a heated and divisive political issue. Now, with new regulations governing mobile vendors on the city council table, neighborhood angst is focused on them.

Chriswell and other longtime neighborhood leaders complain that mobile vendors have repeatedly violated county health codes and ignored city zoning codes. Some vendors dump grease and wastewater down alley manholes. They dig unauthorized connections into the city's sewer system, allow alcohol to be consumed at their eateries, and cook their food in uninspected makeshift backyard kitchens.

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