By Kimberly Gallardo
On a cool Saturday morning in October, city officials, community activists and religious leaders came together with Ramona Gardens residents to celebrate the reopening of the public housing development’s popular open-air market. While mariachi music played in the background, customers lined up to order pupusas, churros or flautas from vendors in stands with new working sinks and fireproof tarps.
For more than 20 years, a weekly unpermitted swap meet operated on the grounds of one of Los Angeles’ oldest housing developments. After years of facing fines or being shut down by police, vendors closed in January and began a nine-month permitting and training process.
The hard work paid off. Ramona Gardens now boasts the city’s only certified market operating in a public housing complex. Those responsible say that the Ramona Gardens Swap Meet can serve as a model for similar enterprises in housing developments throughout the city
“For me, it’s a feeling of great victory,” said Socorro Vázquez, a Ramona Gardens resident and one of the first vendors at the market. “I’m happy for them because I was a vendor for 18 years, and it was very difficult for me.”
The market got its start when vendors put down used items for sale on blankets, forcing customers to bend down to examine the merchandise. Residents began to refer to it as “el agachón,” a slang twist on the Spanish word for bending down, or agachar.
Eventually, residents began to rely on the market for household products, clothing and especially fresh produce and prepared food –hard to find items in an isolated community historically known as a food desert.
The swap meet also became an important source of income for low-income residents, but as the market grew, it generated complaints of increased traffic and illegal vending.
““Police often ran us out,” said Vázquez. Around 2010, she and other vendors sought the help of LA Voice, an interfaith community organization that had been looking at issues of food justice in Ramona Gardens.
They found an ally in Olga Pérez, an LA Voice volunteer and Ramona Gardens resident who was also a frequent swap meet customer.
“I loved that it was here,” Pérez said. “I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t have to run and get buses to go to the store and bring back my shopping. I came straight over here, got my shopping and went home.”
Joining the residents and vendors at meetings at nearby Santa Teresita Church were LAPD officers assigned to the Hollenbeck Division’s Community Safety Partnership (CSP), which oversees Ramona Gardens.
Sergeant Kenneth Edwards said it wasn’t hard to sympathize with the vendors.
“Look at who’s here,” Edwards said. “They’re moms and dads and they’re looking for an opportunity to do something different. My dad used to sell at a swap meet, and he was poor. So when I see these people I see my dad.”
The group eventually approached the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which owns and manages the complex. The agency said it would provide a space use agreement, as long as the vendors got sales permits and became certified by the County Department of Public Health.
The non-profit Hunger Project LA was brought in to train food handlers. A $25,000 grant from the California FreshWorks Fund paid for licenses, fireproof tarps and other supplies.
Some of the market’s longtime customers, who returned for the opening, welcomed the changes.
“I like it because it’s more hygienic,” said Lucila Loera, a resident of nearby Lincoln Heights who has shopped for food and produce at the swap meet for about four years. “Everything is in order. I love those mesh tarps,”
Sergeant Edwards, of the CSP, said that residents of other public housing complexes who want to start their own businesses can learn from Ramona Gardens entrepreneurs.
“What I wanted is to make this the model,” Edwards said. “People [can] learn how to have business opportunities here, from the ground up. They learn from each other and this is the school for it.’
The Reverend Zach Hoover, executive director of LA Voice, said the agreement with the housing authority shows how residents of a poor community can organize to meet their goals, “something new and different that’s going to be at the end of the day good for everybody and instill trust across the board.”
José Pérez, who sells tacos and quesadillas, said the agreement now allows him to earn a living without worrying.
“I feel more at ease now,” said Pérez. . “We’re more comfortable selling now, because we don’t have to worry about someone coming in and taking us out.”
Photo above: Customers peruse merchandise offered at the Ramona Gardens Swap Meet. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.