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Pulling the peddlers off the street

“The city plans to replace the Westlake district’s makeshift sidewalk swap meet with its own licensed marketplace. But in an area where life seems to revolve around illegal street vending, change may not come easily.”

The hustle begins each day at sundown: “Computadoras!” “Bicicletas!” “Carne asada!” For eight straight blocks along 6th Street in the Westlake neighborhood near downtown, sidewalks are so crowded with vendors and their wares that shoppers barely fit. Cumbia music booms and everything is sold “cheap, cheap, cheap.”

It is a peddler’s paradise – one that the city plans to begin replacing with its own licensed marketplace. The ArtGricultural Market, a cross between a swap meet and farmer’s market, will open Saturday morning just a few blocks south of 6th Street, hoping to persuade merchants to legalize their hawking. Already, more than 80 have signed up. But in an area where life seems to revolve around illegal street vending, organizers know change will not come easily.

Authorities have spent the last three months promoting the effort. Vendors, mostly illegal immigrants, were suspicious. They had to apply for a series of permits. To sell used goods (about 90% do) they had to be fingerprinted, enroll in a class taught by police and pay about $500 in fees. “It’s crazy,” said Carlos Aguilar, who signed up a few weeks ago. “We just want to sell. We don’t have money for permits and rules and fees. We barely make enough to get by.”

But the 300 or so merchants crowding the corridor can’t be ignored, Councilman Ed Reyes said. “We’re giving people an opportunity to move on,” he said. “We don’t want to arrest them, we don’t want to take their goods, but we need them to live under the rules.”

For more than two decades, the vendors’ activities have presented a challenge to city officials