By Alex Dobuzinskis and Katherine Davis Young
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Lourdes Segura and Teresa De Leon, sitting on folding chairs by a playground at a Los Angeles park, have neatly set out anything a child might want, from tiny firework snappers that crackle on pavement to Doritos chips.
The unlicensed vendors keep a sharp eye out for customers, but seem barely concerned about police. That could soon change.
Thousands of Los Angeles street vendors, many of them unauthorized immigrants in a city that has increasingly sought to show support to migrants, may soon be forced out of parks where they peddle ice cream, toys, trinkets, dresses hung on tree branches and other items.
"It's been quite a while since the police bothered us," De Leon, 54, an immigrant from El Salvador, said in Spanish. "The ones that bother us are park rangers, because sometimes people call them. But thank God, we're still here."
The Los Angeles City Council two weeks ago voted 13-2 to draft an ordinance that would ban unlicensed vending and other commercial activities in parks, even as the city works to legalize vending on city sidewalks.
Officials say the move to legalize sidewalk vending is intended to allow sellers to legitimately earn a living and ensure food and goods they sell are safe. They draw the line at parks where residents have complained that merchandise clutters pathways and green spaces.
In 2005, officials suspended a city rule against park vending because of litigation against the city challenging rules in the Venice Beach area, where the city has allowed street vendors only to sell works of art or free expression.
As a result of the lifting of enforcement at parks, vendors found a sanctuary in recreation areas from harsher enforcement on sidewalks.
But officials say later court rulings in their favor over sales at Venice beach, whose famed boardwalk crammed with street performers and artist stalls draws tourists from around the globe, gave the city a legal basis to re-apply the ban in parks.
The parks ordinance is expected to be approved when it comes back before the council in late July.
Officials estimate the city, despite outlawing the practice and frequently issuing citations, has 50,000 street vendors, including those in parks, selling everything from rugs by the side of the road to hot dogs from pushcarts.
WORK FOR IMMIGRANTS
At least half the vendors are unauthorized immigrants, said Janet Favela, an organizer with the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign.
Teo Gonzales, 35, who was pushing an ice cream cart in Griffith Park near where De Leon and Segura sell goods, said he likes being his own boss and that, without legal immigration status, other jobs are unavailable.
Each month, Gonzales sends up to $300 to his son in Mexico, he said.
Even though rules against vending in parks were technically suspended, rangers keep it in check.
At the Griffith Observatory on Mount Hollywood, where tourists peer through a telescope that is touted as the most publicly used telescope in the world and take in panoramic views, there were no vendors on a recent sunny afternoon.
Kevin Regan, assistant general manager in the parks department, said rangers might keep vendors away from the observatory by asking them to move along.
While officials have objected to vending in parks, they say another concern is large-scale commercial activity, everything from workout classes to pony rides, that have a foothold in parks. All would be prohibited under the ordinance.
"Everyone assumes if the activity is in a park that it's run by the city. There's a liability," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks.
But community groups are asking why city officials, who have been holding meetings to consider regulating and licensing street vendors, are moving to stop similar sales in parks.
"The idea that they'd move forward to ban vending in one area and legalize it in another area is ridiculous," said Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)