Elderly women getting off the bus on Wednesday afternoon could barely squeeze through the crowd of vendors that lined the sidewalk on the northeast corner of Mission and 24th streets. Some of the vendors appeared agitated and skittish; others, comatose. I lived two blocks away from the plaza for 20 years, and never in that time did the 24th Street Plaza look so chaotic.
And that was one week after the July 20 crackdown that fenced off the BART plazas to discourage illegal vending, and more than a month after the city began enforcing new vending restrictions. For now, city officials acknowledge, enforcement will be sporadic until a new permitting process is in place. The latter will require vendors to show proof of purchase for the goods they sell. It’s unclear when the permits will be ready.
Until then, the plaza will remain fenced off. This means that, for now, anyone coming up the escalator from BART on the northeast plaza has a somewhat clear path to 24th Street and can make a hard left to walk east on 24th Street; a hard right means running the gauntlet of vendors. Muni riders have no choice. Although a city code prohibits any obstruction within 12 feet of a Muni bus stop, any rider getting off the bus faces a corridor of people in all directions hawking everything from beauty products to roach killer.
Is this really okay?
To get a better picture of what was going on, I returned on Thursday and visited the plaza every hour.
8 a.m.: 11 vendors
Of the 11 vendors on Mission Street Thursday morning, it is pretty clear that only one, the flower stand set up at the corner of 24th and Mission streets, will be able to get a permit and demonstrate proof of purchase. Most of the vendors offer a singular item or a small collection of items that could have come from the aisles of a Walgreens or Dollar store.
One man is slumped over a piece of cardboard, where he has set out three, two-pound bags of Colombian coffee; a woman has pulled five bottles of cognac out of a Safeway bag. Some are selling large amounts of mascara and shampoo; others, a few plastic jugs of laundry detergent or Huggies.
8 a.m.: 0 vendors
9 a.m.: 19 vendors
Nineteen vendors are selling everything from yoga pants to hair clips, shampoo and tools. The woman selling cognac is gone.
One young man’s offerings: Smithfield bacon, Scotch-Brite and Raid MAX.
“They are people fighting for survival,” says the flower seller, who has been licensed for years.
Two BART officers are surveying the scene, but the vendors hardly seem bothered. The vendors, one of the cops says, will remain until “San Francisco starts confiscating goods.”
9 a.m.: 0 vendors
10 a.m.: 23 Vendors
A few of the vendors sell used clothes, which can be sold legally, but often the used goods are sold along with new merchandise that will require a receipt for proof of purchase.
Susana Rojas, executive director of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, is working with 45 vendors to get their documentation ready for the permit, but only one of those she is working with, the flower vendor, is out selling on Thursday.
Most of the legitimate vendors she is working with “are afraid to come out and sell” in the current environment, she says.
Of those now at the plaza, says Santiago Lerma, an aide to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, “They are all going to go,” once a permit is required.
Many at the plaza now, he guesses, are coming straight from Walgreens, their backpacks loaded with whatever they were able to shoplift. They sell quickly, leave, and are replaced by another vendor with a backpack. It’s chaotic. Unlike an established flea market, there is little sense of community.
Most of the buyers, and often there seems to be more sellers and pedestrians than buyers, appear to be immigrants. The demographics of the sellers cut across race and ethnicity. Few are older than 50. At different times in the day, anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the sellers appear to be non-immigrants. Many decline interviews, some say they are from Oakland; others, downtown. No one claims to be a Mission resident.
One vendor threatens to break my phone after I take a photo of the Real Living Globe Light Sets he’s selling. I explain what I am doing, but he’s not interested. He gets close and shouts at me, then suddenly turns and walks off.
“Well, you can have it,” he says, leaving his merchandise behind.
The things they sell
10 a.m.: 0 vendors
11 a.m.: 27 vendors
It’s getting crowded on Mission Street and, for the first time this morning, the vendors have turned the corner to sell on 24th Street.
I remember trying to set up a table to sell Mission Local merchandise in 2014 or so and being asked within minutes whether we had a permit. We did not. So our vending enterprise ended quickly.
We should have waited until 2018, Lerma, Ronen’s aide says. That’s when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law that essentially made sidewalk vending legal everywhere in California. “Sidewalk vending provides important entrepreneurship and economic development opportunities to low-income and immigrant communities,” the legislation states.
It did not foresee the urban landmines it would inspire, the fields of vendors trying to make a quick buck selling stolen goods.
When the new vending law is enforced, “a lot of people will be out of compliance,” says Lerma.
11 a.m.: 5 vendors
What they are selling on 24th Street
Noon: All but one vendor has been cleared.
When I’m on the phone with Lerma, he informs me that a team from San Francisco Public Works, the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency are at the plaza clearing out illegal vendors. Susana Rojas, the executive director of Calle 24, is also there.
By the time I arrive, only one vendor remains on Mission Street: The flower seller.
Of those who are gone, says Rojas, “they’re not from this community.” Still, she has a lot of compassion. “When you see the human suffering,” she says, “it is overwhelming.”
She has invited all the vendors to meetings. When I’m skeptical about being able to reform vendors accustomed to dealing in stolen goods, she holds out hope. About 20 have said they would be interested in finding a job, she says. But she understands that getting them to that place will take time and money. “We are only a small team,” she says.
For now, she is focused on making the plaza safer for the families and residents of the Mission.
She looks at the grungy plaza the city has fenced off to discourage vending, and sees good times ahead. “We will spruce it up, power wash it, repaint,” she says. She envisions free art classes, she hears music.
Noon: A handfull of vendors remain
1 p.m.: 5 vendors
With the officials gone, the vendors have started to trickle back.
Yet another vendor screams at me to stop taking photographs. I offer my card and try to explain that I am a reporter. He threatens to videotape me and I look at him and wonder if he really thinks that is threatening.
This, like other interactions over the day, dissipates quickly and instead of being scary, the encounters become increasingly sad. It’s a stretch of urban misery in which the angry seem to understand that they will not win.
The first items to return
1 p.m.: 0 vendors
2 p.m.: 21 vendors
The things they sell
A few old shoes, detergent, mascara; the items generally come out of backpacks or suitcases.
2 p.m.: 7 vendors
3 p.m.: 28 vendors
To my surprise, It is not the number of vendors and crowded sidewalks that begin to weigh on me. Instead, it is the sense of desperation: The women, teeth gone, who sit by small offerings of candy and shampoo; the men, many agitated, who open up an old suitcase to reveal wares that almost always include items few people need: Plastic gloves, eyeliner, a can of Red Bull.
Those selling jeans, used or new, do best. Occasionally someone selling jugs of detergent will attract a crowd.
When I introduce myself to one young woman, she explains that she is “selling tights that I wore before I was pregnant” and then collapses in exhaustion. Nearby, her friend, who says he is “just visiting,” doodles on a piece of cardboard. Their dog dozes nearby. They are similar to the young teens and 20-somethings who used to be ubiquitous on Haight Street.
3 p.m. 11 vendors
4 p.m.: 19 vendors
As I walk through the crowd, someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn and it is a young woman who comes close in with her cell phone. Click. She snaps a photo. “Take that,” she says and spins on her heels back to her merchandise.
I realize she is someone who was selling at the front of the line and I had taken a photo of her wares. By this time, a fair number of vendors have gotten used to me. Many have my business card. Some seem interested in what I am doing.
Still, I hear the occasional “bitch,” but I can hardly blame them. They are frustrated, suspicious, and anxious to make a buck and leave.
One vendor is selling used shoes, protein mix, alcohol tests and Tide. Another woman and her friend are selling a 3D printer. We talk about what I am doing, and she seems interested.
“You wouldn’t believe what people throw away,” her boyfriend adds.
I would. I’ve picked up some choice items myself.
4 p.m.: 8 vendors
5 p.m.: 22 vendors
Midway on Mission Street, the sidewalk is entirely blocked by a man selling a new bike. Given the crowd gathered around to inspect the Mongoose, the sale will be quick. He wants $80 for a bike that goes for anywhere from $299 to nearly $600, depending on the model.
Along 24th Street, someone is now selling a full-size mattress that is propped up against the fence surrounding the plaza.
The Muni bus stop (the one where no obstruction is allowed within 12 feet) has become a vendor’s shelf, displaying Walgreens alcohol spray, a few Cokes, and LiftUp, a volumizing hair foam.
“Buy it,” the same vendor urges, pushing in front of me a Hillshire snack container with salami, cheese and crackers.
5 p.m.: 8 vendors
6 p.m.: 20 vendors
The woman selling the 3D printer is packing up. It hasn’t been a good day, she says.
Don’t judge us, she asks. “We’re not all homeless, we’re just selling stuff we’ve found.”
Are some days better than others, I ask.
Yes, the weekends. She breaks out into a smile. “Lots of people are here, she says. “There is music.”
As I get on the bus to go home, one of the vendors who screamed at me earlier in the day catches my eye. He has a nice wad of cash and he’s sifting through it looking at me, smiling “we’re out here getting money, getting money, yeah, getting money.”
6 p.m.: 6 vendors
What can be learned from a day at the plaza?
- The city can clear the sidewalk vendors when it decides to.
- When the city came in, only one vendor could pass their legitimacy test and remain.
- The 45 vendors working with Calle 24 to get permitted are reluctant to work on the plaza in the current environment.
- Transit riders getting off Muni are on their own navigating the public sidewalks.
- Pedestrians trying to get through the maze of vendors often outnumber the buyers stopping to look and buy.
- A lot of people need jobs and help.