On a sweltering day in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, 26th Street bustles with traffic and music flowing out of many of the Mexican restaurants, laundromats, and pawn shops.
This is also a strip where street vendors are a part of the fabric of this community. Ciria Grajales, who sells elotes or raspados from her cart, said she and other street vendors are in a fight.
“We are in a struggle,” said the 54-year-old in Spanish. “Sometimes when it’s too hot, people don’t come out to buy, and when it’s too cold, people don’t come out either.”
Grajales is also worried about licensing issues — what she and other vendors say are overly burdensome requirements for selling food on the street.
“Sometimes I worry because you never know if an inspector will come,” she said. “[The city] has too many requirements. They ask for things that we can’t get.”
Grajales is among thousands of street vendors in Chicago, selling corn, shaved ice, tamales and other items in neighborhoods like Little Village, Pilsen and Albany Park. Vendors say the requirements to licensing are a high bar. They include selling prepackaged items prepared in a commercial kitchen, which goes against the nature of cutting up corn and slathering it in mayo and cheese or dressing up fruit with spices while the customer is watching. And the refrigeration or heating equipment required by the city is cost prohibitive at times.
But now as Mayor Brandon Johnson and a new City Council settle into a new agenda, these small business owners hope they’ll get some more help around licensing and crime.
The latter is top of mind for Luis Hernandez. After losing his fingers in an accident a few years ago, he has been unable to find a factory job. Hernandez peddles socks on 26th Street next to his wife, who sells elotes and raspados.
“We can be out here in the heat all day, and someone can come and rob us and hurt us for 20, 30 bucks,” he said in Spanish.
Vendors are voicing their concerns to elected officials. Earlier this week, 25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez took an early morning tour along 26th Street.
He said there has been a reduction in robberies along the commercial corridor after a spike in incidents last winter, but recent cases in Pilsen and Albany Park show that street vendors still need help.
“We want to be vigilant; this issue still remains,” Sigcho-Lopez said. He added that some street vendors don’t report crimes because they are not licensed with the city and are worried about repercussions.
Ald. Mike Rodriguez of the 22nd Ward — whose area also includes a stretch of 26th Street — said the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office have increased their presence along the corridor, especially in the early morning hours when many of the robberies occurred.
He also said the city has been working with vendors to implement strategies to deter robberies.
“We’ve worked with vendors to figure out alternatives to cash systems, and these efforts have proven effective,” Rodriguez said.
Augusto Aquino, president of the Street Vendors Association of Chicago, said he wants Johnson’s administration to be receptive to proposals to change municipal code and ease access to licenses for street vendors.
“There are very few street vendors who have gotten the licenses, but we’re trying,” Aquino said in Spanish.
A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) said in a statement: “The licensing requirements are determined by the Department of Public Health, which oversees food sanitation regulation and inspections. Any changes will require a multi-departmental and multi-stakeholder effort.”
Sigcho-Lopez said he believes there is “a commitment and a desire at least, from this administration, to have a conversation and hopefully help [vendors] with their licenses.Karla Silva just started selling her tamales on 26th Street this week. On her first day of business she parked her car on the north side of the street and put up a green poster advertising her tamales.
Another vendor, Hector Hernandez Santay, invited her to join him under the tent where he sells raspados. Hernandez Santay — who was robbed earlier this month less than a mile away — said despite his worries about crime, he has no choice but to come out and earn a living “for my rent, for my bills.”His brother runs the barbershop next to the tent and set up a surveillance camera.
Silva said that made her more comfortable, but more help is needed. She said she doesn’t know if the new administration can reduce crime or ease licensing woes, but she’s sure about one thing: street vendors need help.
“We’re just trying to make a living day by day and that’s it — just put a piece of bread on our family’s table,” she said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.