Taco Hell

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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."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow