Food vendors at the Ramona Gardens Swap Meet. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

By Kimberly Gallardo

Vendors at the Ramona Gardens Swap Meet.

For more than 20 years, an unpermitted open-air market operated on the grounds of Ramona Gardens, one of Los Angeles’ oldest public housing developments. After years of facing fines or being shut by police, vendors closed last January to begin a permitting process. When the weekly swap meet reopens Saturday, Ramona Gardens will become the first housing development in the city with a certified market.

“I feel more at ease now,” says José Pérez, who sells tacos and quesadillas. “We’re more comfortable selling now, because we don’t have to worry about someone coming in and taking us out.”

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 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 it generated complaints of increased traffic and illegal vending. “Police often ran us out,” says Socorro Vázquez, a Ramona Gardens resident and one of the market’s first food vendors.

A food vendor in 2014.

Around 2010, Vásquez and others sought the help of LA Voice, an interfaith community organization that had been looking at issues of food justice in Ramona Gardens. They joined police officers from the Ramona Gardens Community Safety Partnership (CSP) and representatives from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), to work out a plan.

The plan called for vendors to get sales permits and become certified by the County Department of Public Health. Another 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.

Sergeant Kenneth Edwards, of the CSP, says Ramona Gardens can now serve as a business model for other public housing complexes.

The Reverend Zach Hoover, executive director of LA Voice, says the market shows how residents of a poor community can organize to meet their goals, “something new and different that’s going to be good for everybody and instill trust across the board.”

Kimberly Gallardo is a junior at Oscar de la Hoya Ánimo Charter High School.

Photo above: food stands at the Ramona Gardens swap meet are now protected by fire resistant tarps.

The Ramona Gardens Swap Meet is held Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on the corner of Murchinson St. and Chelsea St.. A reopening ceremony will be held Saturday, Oct. 29 from 10 to 11 a.m.

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