Taco Hell

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."

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.

These complaints have evolved over the past three years into a shouting match with the City of Phoenix. Chriswell, Williams and other neighborhood leaders who once backed each other up in their dealings with City Hall have split over the mobile vendor issue; some have negotiated an agreement with the vendors, others just want them out.

"I used to drive Vicki [Chriswell] to the doctor," says Alma Williams, who left Chriswell's anti-vendor camp last year to help negotiate a new city ordinance regulating vendors, "and she used to call me two dozen times a day. But now I'm the devil incarnate. They've lied about me, saying I was in the pay of the vendors, and called me just about every name in the book."

"Traitor" is about the most polite.

"One day she was with us," says Chriswell. "The next thing you know, she's over there buddying up with the vendors."

On October 4, the Phoenix City Council will take up the mobile vendor issue and all its twisted threads when it addresses two proposed amendments to the city ordinances that would regulate mobile vending in the city. The city's Board of Adjustment will consider the issue the next day, October 5.

But these upcoming city actions aren't likely to end the hard feelings.

Says vendor advocate Salvador Reza: "These people in the neighborhoods basically want to blame the taco vendors for all the ills of society -- all the neighborhood's noise, prostitution, alcohol, drug dealers and trash -- and that if we'd go away, all those problems would go away, too."

Between 1970 and 1995, the Spanish-speaking population in Chriswell's neighborhood climbed from about 30 percent to 70 percent. Experts believe that the 2000 census data will show even more of a dominance by Hispanics.

"The immigration has really made the area much more transient," says a young Mexican-American woman who grew up in the area near 31st Avenue and McDowell. She doesn't want to be identified for this story, fearing repercussions at work, which brings her in contact with many immigrants. "The area is flooded with illegals. Many try and work hard, but they tend to see this neighborhood as a place they're going to spend just a few days or weeks or months. They know they're going to move on, so their stake here isn't very great. And they're generally pretty fearful of people they don't know, so they don't want to get involved -- with neighbors or anyone else."

Many old-timers, Hispanic and Anglo, distrust the newcomers. They see the incoming human tide filling houses vacated by old friends, and eroding the common links and values that had made the neighborhood look and feel like home.

"Sometimes it's hard to recognize this place," says an elderly Mexican-American woman who moved to the neighborhood just west of 35th Avenue and south of McDowell 30 years ago. She also asked that her name not be used. "Just look at the alleys. They used to be clean and safe. Now the cans are overflowing with garbage from too many people living in these houses. I've got a place behind me that's probably got 20 people living in it. We've just become Phoenix's new dumping ground."

Many Mexican Americans interviewed for this story say there is plenty of reason to fear retribution if they speak their minds about neighborhood problems and are identified in newspaper articles.

"We've been fighting gangs and drug dealers and all the rest of them out here for years," says Art Pimentel, "and there are plenty of us who've been targeted."

Chriswell's activism in the community got her car firebombed several years ago, she believes. Houses of other activists have been targeted in drive-bys. And, a few weeks ago, a young Mexican-American woman who voiced her concerns about the neighborhood in an Arizona Republic story found her cat beheaded in her yard.

"The people with the vendors like to say it's racism," says Marissa Morales, who moved to Chriswell's neighborhood in 1982. "But it's not. The issue is we want what's fair. That's basic. The issue is we buy homes. We invest time and money in them. And we don't want to see them or the neighborhood around them to continue to deteriorate the way this area has."

Williams says the race card has been easy to play on both sides of this issue, but that the charges of racism have obscured real issues that the city and the vendors need to address.

"The issue had nothing to do with racism," she says. "This is not affirmative action at all. The issue was land use and what does the law say."

Unfortunately, the city has no laws specifically covering mobile vending. The one that came closest was a rule governing temporary uses on commercial property. But, like many parts of the city's zoning code, it is vague at best, condemning enforcement to a gray area of constant questions, rather than clear answers. Further complicating enforcement is the fact that existing city laws cover only issues of land use. The county has jurisdiction over public-health violations.

Williams and Paul Barnes, another neighborhood activist from east central Phoenix who left Chriswell's anti-vendor alliance to help negotiate the proposed new rules, say the new ordinances would bring some order to the city's chaos of incomplete regulations.

Chriswell and other opponents insist the city has all the laws it needs to deal with mobile vending.

Says Chriswell, "The problem is the city just hasn't enforced its laws, so their position is, 'Why not just legalize this?'"

A fixture for years at swap meets and some street corners of south Phoenix, the taco vendors began to move north in the early 1990s, a sure sign that Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking immigrants were migrating beyond the city's traditional barrios and landing zones.

"These taco vendors are survivalists," says Reza, a community worker at Tonatierra, a Phoenix nonprofit educational center that sponsors programs for the region's growing Mexican immigrant community. In the spring of 1999, he helped organize a union of mobile vendors -- known as the Union Pochtecha Vendedores Ambulantes -- which has resisted neighborhood efforts to shut them down.

Reza adds, "They go where they can make a living. Mexican neighborhoods have always had these trucks and little ding-a-ling carts going around, selling tacos, tamales, ice cream, you name it."

Vendors make from $400 to $3,000 a week depending the size and location of their operation.

Hernan Rivera recalls that he and other vendors used to operate along South Central Avenue to cash in on the weekend cruising crowd. "But when the police clamped down on that back in the '90s, we all just moved out here, where the people were going."

City officials don't know how many mobile vendors are operating around the city. Maricopa County health officials say the county licenses about 1,740 food vendors. They say another 700 may be rolling around the Valley without the proper health permits.

Over the past six months, about 20 vendors have been operating within a mile of 35th Avenue and McDowell Road. Most cluster on commercial property near food stores and bars. They typically lease or sublease the property from the landowners. And they tend to be mobile in name alone. They operate more or less as permanent businesses -- erecting shade tents and awnings draped with signs -- providing everything from food and seat covers to tools and automobile repairs.

The practice is an extension of the outdoor neighborhood workshops found in just about every barrio. But longtime Anglo and Hispanic residents see it turning neighborhoods into another stretch of swap meets.

"What's happened is these people have come in here and they've turned the neighborhood into a business," says Ray Goodman, who's lived just east of 35th Avenue for four years, and supports the proposed new ordinance. "They're running businesses on their front lawns, back lawns, out of the houses. It turns the place into a mess. All we want the city to do is fix the mess."

The city and county began edging in that direction more than a year and a half ago when they established a joint mobile vendor task force. Its aim was to coordinate enforcement of existing vendor laws and end the funkiest operations. The task force began an enforcement sweep early last year.

"All of a sudden the sky was raining bureaucrats on us," recalls Dan Darroch, whose used car lot at 24th Street and Jefferson doubles as Hap's Real Pit BBQ. A repo man who gets happy -- thus the name -- by cooking barbecue, he's had good health scores at his nine-year-old food stand. He says he never had trouble until the west-siders began complaining about the taco vendors.

"I look up one day and we've got maybe 15 city and county cars in the parking lot across the street and they're all coming at me with clipboards and pens. That's a real bad sign."

He says the inspectors had come to pick his business apart. "Problem is, they can't find anything wrong. I think they found it a little bit embarrassing. So they left to write tickets out on the west side."

Phoenix Vice Mayor Doug Lingner, who represents the west Phoenix area, says the joint city/county effort was an attempt to get a handle on how well the vendors complied with existing codes.

However, faced with the many gray areas of the law, the city's Neighborhood Services Department asked a city zoning administrator to clarify mobile vending rules.

The ruling, issued in May 1999, was never implemented. But it would have restricted vendors to 20 days of business a year in some areas.

"When the neighborhoods saw that," says Lingner, who at that time thought the restrictions were necessary to protect neighborhoods, "they danced a little jig, thinking the vendors couldn't survive on 20 days of work."

But it also roused about 80 vendors to organize the union and hire civil rights attorney Stephen Montoya. He appealed the zoning administrator's ruling to the city's Board of Adjustment, and the union began a series of protests.

Newspapers and talk radio pummeled the city for trying to eliminate American entrepreneurs. That stopped the city's enforcement campaign.

"It really boiled down to the fact that these people just didn't like these Mexican vendors. Period," says Reza. "They wanted to wipe them out. They wanted to wipe out the vendors without ever talking to them or finding out who they are. I told the vendors, who are all mostly families, that the city wasn't going to respond until they protest. So we circled the City Hall with lunch wagons."

The Board of Adjustment reset the city's course entirely in July 1999 when it postponed ruling on Montoya's appeal of the disputed zoning rule and instructed neighborhoods and vendors to negotiate a solution.

Next week, the negotiators will present the board with the proposed ordinances that emerged from the past year's talks. The proposals would require vendors to get a vending license from the city. The city would regulate how, where and when they could operate on private property. The new rules would also make it easier to shut down vendors who don't comply. Vendors, who now can stay open as late as they want, would have to turn off their lights and pull up their tables and chairs at 10 p.m. They could remain open, in the pitch dark, as takeout businesses until 2 a.m.

To beef up enforcement, the city has promised to hire six new inspectors, allow them to cite vendors without having to wait for citizen complaints, and to send them into neighborhoods after hours, when most of the vendor businesses operate.

Williams says the fact that the city is willing to enact reforms on this tiny issue -- but not on other blight violations in neighborhoods -- "just goes to show you that their fear of marching minorities is greater than their fear of neighborhood leaders."

Even if the city increases its enforcement effort, the county still lacks enough health inspectors to cover the more than 1,700 vendors. Loopholes in county regulations also concern activists.

David Ludwig, who heads the county's Division of Environmental Health, which handles permits for food vendors and restaurants, concedes that even finding the vendors can be difficult.

Neighborhood opponents claim that mobile vendor operations are dirtier than most restaurants. But Ludwig says the percentage of mobile vendors with bad inspections about equals that of restaurants.

Still, he says, the neighborhood activists have had some legitimate gripes.

One is whether vendors are using approved commissaries, as the county requires, to dispose of their waste grease and water. (A commissary is a business that has the capability of handling vendor wastes, often another restaurant or food supplier.)

Vendor representatives have told the city's village planning committees, which have been considering the proposed ordinance changes all summer, that they have access to more than 20 commissaries. But a recent check by the county found that only two would take any vendor. Another two would take only vendors who signed agreements to purchase food and goods through them.

Without commissaries, says Ludwig, vendors are prone to dump their wastes illegally.

Hernan Rivera says that to get his health permit, he found a commissary not far from his setup in front of La Reyna Bakery. It gave him a letter of agreement. But before the year was out, the management asked him to move on because it could make more money off larger rigs. Without telling the county, he began using La Reyna Bakery, where he works during the day, as his commissary.

Ludwig says such an arrangement is legal under the current standards. But the makeshift arrangements of other vendors may not be.

"We really need to reevaluate that whole system on our end. I don't know whether they're dumping illegally in the alley or where they're setting up."

A number of vendors also own restaurants and service their mobile outlets there.

But Ludwig suspects that some vendors are cleaning their trucks at home. Unfortunately, like the city, the county has no after-hours inspectors to do anything about it.

Rest rooms are another problem. The proposed city ordinance requires one within a "reasonable" distance. Vice Mayor Lingner, who supports the ordinance, says what's reasonable has not yet been defined.

Ludwig says he's aware of situations where the rest rooms have been port-o-johns, bushes and worse. "I've had inspectors who've come back and said, yeah, they've got the little camp stool sitting up by the driver's seat and they're using it. And when you pick up a box that has human defecation in it -- I've had an inspector do that -- you have to wonder about personal hygiene and what people are thinking."

He says county inspectors probably confiscate more food from mobiles than from restaurants, because food, like everything else, heats up in a hot metal box.

Not surprisingly, ordinance opponents have seized on all of these horror stories, and played them to the hilt. At meeting after meeting this summer, they have pointed to their portable displays of photographs showing the most egregious examples of health and zoning violations, passing them off as the rule rather than the rarity. They have tried to vilify the vendors as low-lifes who would do just about anything to make a sale.

Aureliano Dominguez is a handsome man, short and strong, whose black mustache and hair are as sharp as the creases of his well-pressed Ralph Lauren shirts.

He runs a food truck, selling tacos, empanadas, tortas and other goodies across the street from the El Capri dance club near 21st Street and Van Buren.

Before the vendor struggle, he never envisioned himself speaking up for anyone but himself. "I thought I was somebody that was breathing and eating, but wasn't counted, wasn't important to people."

But at meeting after meeting over the past year, he has been a leading spokesman for the vendors, many of whom don't speak much English.

Each time, his message has been that the vendors want this ordinance so they can continue to work and support their families.

He usually opens his own business around 7 at night. He runs until 2 a.m. on weeknights, 4 a.m. on the weekends. He goes that late because it's good business. The dancers come out hungry and like to linger with their dates in the parking lot around his truck.

He spends an hour or two cleaning the parking lot and checking supplies after closing. He works about 20 hours a day on weekends, and sometimes, he says, he doesn't sleep at all.

The proposed ordinance would make him close at 2 every morning, cutting about 25 percent of his business. It would also require him to be fingerprinted, something that no other restaurant worker has to do.

He says he agreed to these and other conditions because he wanted people to see that the vendors were willing to meet the neighborhoods halfway.

Dominguez, like Hernan Rivera and other vendors, sees the vending business as "the little baby steps trying to learn how to walk. In 10 years, we might own a chain of restaurants."

Given the sharp way he runs his current truck, it isn't likely the neighbors would have much cause to complain about him or shut him down. He consistently gets good health ratings from the county.

Like Rivera and other vendors involved in the past year's negotiations, he sees the ordinance as a step toward improving the business on which they're building their dreams.

"Every time I go to these village meetings, I am humiliated," says Dominguez. "My self-esteem and pride are on the ground because of the negative stuff they say about us. We know there are some bad apples out there. But this ordinance will help take out those bad apples.

"These people say we're all criminals," he adds, shaking his head. "But I am not one. We work hard. This whole thing is about getting these people to see that we will do whatever it takes to comply. So maybe when they see one of us working, they'll respect us."

Williams believes that if the city council rejects the proposed ordinances and the Board of Adjustment upholds the zoning interpretation next week, the vendors would have every right to pursue a court appeal.

But court isn't where the vendors want to spend their time, says Reza. "They're very practical. They're tired of meetings, tired of losing money every time they have to stop and come to the city. They've negotiated everything except their right to operate. They just want to be left alone."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow