Until September, Chicago’s 2,000 pushcart vendors serving everything from tamales to chocolatey champurrado operated without city-approved permits, subject to fines or closure if the wrong public inspector crossed their path. That ended when City Council passed an ordinance legalizing food carts on September 24th — but a month later, two aldermen banned them in high-traffic sections of their wards.
Pushcarts set up shop on sidewalks, often attracting lines of hungry customers. The space they take up — and congestion they potentially create — is driving amendments to the new ordinance from Aldermen Brendan Reilly and Tom Tunney. But according to some advocates, concern for local restaurants, not pedestrians, is actually behind the bans, which could hurt a burgeoning industry of primarily Latino entrepreneurs.
Citing street furniture, kiosks and other infrastructure on a number of high-volume pedestrian streets downtown, Reilly’s amendment states that “adding food carts to the mix of existing obstructions … would exacerbate current concerns for the functionality and safety of the public way.”
Tunney used similar language in a second amendment, calling out neighborhood density and the large volume of tourists around Wrigley Field.
“Sidewalks that are smaller in width, mixed with congestion and a steady flow of foot traffic is the main pedestrian safety issue the Alderman has,” an email from Tunney’s office states. “There are a number of uses on these narrow sidewalks that also get in the way — light poles, parking meters, bike racks, benches and sidewalk cafes.”
But Hilary Gowins, an editor for the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, sees business interests in the ban.
“History has shown Chicagoans where Tunney and Reilly stand when it comes to culinary competition,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post. Citing the density of traditional dining spots in Reilly’s ward and the fact that Tunney owns a local restaurant chain, Gowins added, “Tunney and Reilly were among the chief proponents of heavy restrictions on food trucks when City Council considered the topic over the last several years. Tunney made no secret that the main reason behind the city’s oppressive rules is to protect established businesses.”
Beth Kregor, director of the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, helped write the ordinance legalizing pushcarts. She says that while Tunney’s pedestrian concerns seem somewhat justified, Reilly’s amendment concerns her.
“Alderman Tunney’s ordinance was fairly limited and quite specific to a few blocks close to Wrigley Field,” she says. “Alderman Reilly’s ordinance blocked off major thoroughfares throughout the length of his ward.”
Food cart bans are permissible only on the grounds of “health and public safety concerns such as traffic congestion,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. But Kregor questions how the more widespread ban can be justified if there’s no real trial period.
“It sounds like Reilly would like to be cautious and ban them first and then pull back,” she says. “But I would hope the aldermen would make these amendments only if there is a clear case of a congestion or a safety problem. There will be no way to prove that a problem exists if the pushcarts are banned.”
“When someone makes such a broad move to limit entrepreneurs it does raise suspicions that it’s about protecting established businesses rather than protecting the public,” she adds.
Reilly’s office did not respond to phone and email queries seeking comment. When asked to respond to Gowins’ concerns, Tunney’s office pointed out that parts of the Alderman’s ward are now “welcoming” to food trucks, with established “food truck loading zones.”
But regardless of motivation, the bans could hurt a startup industry run mostly by Chicago’s Hispanic community. According to numbers collected by the Illinois Policy Institute, a slight majority of vendors are women (55 percent) and most support at least one dependent. Vendors earn about $691 per week in revenue and see about $328 per week in profits.
Vicky Lugo is vice president of the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Association of Street Vendors). She says the ban won’t affect most of the street vendors currently operating.
“We knew that aldermen would have a choice of having “No Peddling Zones” in their wards, but it really doesn’t affect food vendors because most of these folks work out in minority neighborhoods, particularly Latino ones,” she writes in an email. “When we were first speaking with [the aldermen] and getting their support, more than half supported us and so we think that they will not restrict those other neighborhoods.”
But the abundance of tourists, shoppers and general food traffic on the high-volume streets where the carts are now banned could have been a financial boon to the industry, Kregor says.
“This law was passed to allow all Chicagoans to start a business, and it’s the most affordable way to start a business selling food,” she says. “By shutting this business opportunity off to people on some of the busiest streets of Chicago, it cuts off potential.”
At a September meeting, Alderman Roberto Maldonado cited widespread issues of racial equity among his reasons for sponsoring the bill that legalized pushcarts.
“At a time when the national debate has turned toward demeaning our immigrant population, we must strengthen our laws to bring our immigrants and entrepreneurs out of the shadows and give them the respect and legitimacy they deserve,” he said, according to the Sun-Times.
Going forward, pushcart vendors will have that legitimacy in Chicago — just not on some of the city’s busiest streets.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.