The Slow Death of Coachella's Local Vendor Economy

The sight of bacon-wrapped hot dogs sizzling atop metal trays, their fatty aroma intermingling with desert dust and the odor of dead grass, has been a familiar part of the Coachella Valley Music Festival for many years. But not this year.

Where they once could be found along any entry path at any hour of the day, the hot-dog vendors can now only be found at the very end of each night in the northeast parking lots at the end of the Yellow Path.

“You could still buy hot dogs almost anywhere out here up until about two years ago,” explains pedicab driver Nahná. This year marks his fourth year in a row working at the festival, and he's noticed many incremental changes during that time. “Now you can only buy them over at Yellow Path, but I think they can only sell at the end of the night.”

Read: More Coachella 2016 coverage

It's a stark contrast to what I remember from when I attended Coachella religiously from 2003 to 2009. The sight of hot dogs sizzling on grills was common from day to night in what was a functioning, miniature economy of bartering and reselling, fueled by the ingenuity of both locals and festival-goers.

Kids as young as 10 would post in a spot close to the entrance with stacks of 24-packs of bottled water at their side. Catering to thirsty festival-goers, they could easily make a small fortune in a day, much less an entire weekend.

Another common sight was local families posted up under the shade of a tree in the parking lot areas, spending time together while someone kept a barbecue grill going to sell hamburgers and hot dogs to folks walking through the lot. I recall one year when an attendee who brought his own grill bartered with another starving music fan nearby: three burgers for three pills of ecstasy.

The expansion of and changes to the parking areas in recent years has destroyed that old, DIY economy, with much of the action now confined to the camping areas only. Nahná pointed out some of the safety concerns that brought about the changes.

“There’s too much traffic between bikes and the carts around here,” he says waving a finger towards the Blue Path and Green Path parking lots south of the Empire Polo Club. As he spoke, a pair of volunteers in neon yellow vests stopped foot traffic into the festival to allow three carts to zip by on a muddied path.

“There’s a lot more foot traffic up at Red [Path] and Yellow [Path],” he continues. “That’s why there’s more bikes down here than up there. It’s too difficult to ride through those narrow areas.”

Perhaps the biggest change at Coachella in recent years has been the absolute elimination of foot traffic on Madison and Monroe Streets between Avenue 48 and Avenue 52. Coachella organizers AEG/Goldenvoice cited safety as the reason for change (and it's true that being a pedestrian near Coachella can be dangerous — last weekend, an attendee was struck and killed by a motorist at a nearby intersection), but keeping pedestrians off Coachella's two busiest entry and exit streets has, intentionally or otherwise, effectively shut down most of the local underground economy that used to spring up around the festival. The sight of a local resident basking in the shade of her own umbrella on the sidewalk or dirt paths leading into the polo fields, with a large cooler filled with bottled water and snacks for sale, is a thing of the past.

Other festival policy changes concerning pick-up and drop-off locations, shuttles, taxis, and Uber rides have also negatively impacted parts of the local economy. In their OC Weekly story “What’s It Like to Live Right Next to Coachella?”, Denise De La Cruz and Candace Hansen met a resident who is a member of a local church that would raise funds during festival weekends by offering shuttle services to festival-goers.

“The revenue from the limo service provided much needed funding for the church programs,” they wrote, “but unfortunately when Coachella changed their parking and drop-off procedures and regulations last year, the church became unable to operate their limo service, which negatively impacted their yearly budget.”

Ironically, the bicycle cab drivers (whom many at the festival assume are locals) also take part in Coachella's economic gentrification. As Nahná explains it, AEG/Goldenvoice has a contract with two companies. Those two companies hire bike cab drivers from around the country to work as independent contractors, a sort of Uber for bike cabs.

"I'm actually from Houston," he admits, "and I'm working out here with guys from Chicago, Austin, and from all over the country. The money you make both weekends is worth coming out for."

That’s not to say that there aren’t local hustlers out there still making a buck, too, such as the small band of hot-dog vendors on the Yellow Path each night, as well as scalpers trying to buy up wristbands from early departers. And of course, Airbnb has created an even bigger economy for locals willing to rent out their homes to festival-goers (though this mainly benefits wealthier Coachella Valley residents who own a second place to sleep).

There is, however, a strong, concerted effort by AEG/Goldenvoice to protect their economic interests by shielding their contracted food, beverage, and transportation vendors from having to compete with enterprising locals, under the guise of safety and convenience concerns.

Meanwhile, the small band of hot-dog and bottled-water vendors at Yellow Path continue their hustle despite the challenges against them: a combination of wind and dust attacking their food, ambivalent festival-goers with a shower and a nap their main focus, and a powerful corporation that appears determined, slowly but surely, to force them out of existence.
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