Mixed Messages

Posted by Alex Schmidt


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At 7:30 a.m. in East Los Angeles, women in sweatpants stand around in front of Naty’s house. The sun is just starting to bathe the neighborhood in golden light as Naty and her two employees haul out goods and place them on the front fence, on picnic tables, and on garment racks. Everything here—clothing, shampoo, toys, and electronics—is new, and nothing costs more than $5. On the two days a week that the “shop” is open, neighborhood folks wait to see what new merchandise Naty has to offer. 

Naty has been doing this for the five years since she arrived in Los Angeles from Durango, Mexico. A single mom to two young daughters, this business is her sole source of income. Sociologists would call her work “entrepreneurship by necessity” since she started the business when she was out of options, and, indeed, Naty is a savvy and hard-working businesswoman. There’s just one problem with an enterprise like hers: It’s illegal. 

It’s often said that Los Angeles is one big suburb, a city that’s not really a city, and there’s truth to that. When the first farmers and grove owners expanded beyond the downtown Pueblo in the mid-19th century, they set up plots at significant distances from one another. At the end of the century, as old rancho lands were subdivided into city blocks along new railway lines, neighborhoods developed without a real plan for urban density growth. The outcome: Single-family neighborhoods spread out across a major metropolitan area. 

That combination makes Los Angeles unique among the country’s big cities. And while it may have seemed a bucolic fantasy a century ago, L.A. now faces the same challenges as any major metropolis, like poverty and immigration. Those things bump up against the concept of a residential nirvana in at least one phenomenon on clear display: businesses, like Naty’s, that operate on front lawns. 

Most of these enterprises are in East or South L.A., which makes sense. These are immigrant neighborhoods of Mexican and other Central American extraction populated by residents who come to the United States with meager job prospects and very little capital. As Ivan Light, a UCLA sociology professor, explains, self-employment is higher in immigrant communities than non-immigrant communities for a simple reason: “If you can’t get a job, you have to start a business. So people do it.”

In these trying economic times, businesses like these flourish. Clothing shops, tire stores, car washes, driveway taquerias, and a wooden planter business are just a small selection of the vast range of front-lawn enterprises in Los Angeles. And the amount of money the businesses bring in varies as well. Some provide their proprietors with no more than $10 or $15 per month—just enough to buy milk and tortillas—while others generate several hundreds of dollars per day. 

Naty falls into the latter category. She goes in on pallets of new goods with nine other women who live nearby; each operates a front-lawn business at a different spot in the neighborhood. Naty’s success has a lot to do with her location. Because she has four schools around her, mothers stop by on their way to taking the children to school and then as they walk back home. In the afternoon, when they pick up the children, they pass by two more times. So though she spends $500 on a pallet for a day, she ends up selling about $700 worth of goods, leaving her with $200, out of which she pays her employees and a babysitter. 

Mixed use is exactly what business owners like Naty have created—just not in the way planners envision it.

Naty pays taxes to the city every year based on sales, but she is still in violation of its zoning laws. She isn’t allowed to have more than one resident employee, or to change the “character” of the residential neighborhood by making it look commercial. The city doesn’t have the resources to patrol all 496 square miles of land, so violations like hers are enforced on a complaint basis.

A pretty, polite woman who wears big hoop earrings and rhinestone-studded tank tops, Naty explains how one of her friends has been shut down and another has received the first of three written warnings (a precursor to fines). So far, Naty has received only verbal warnings. “Many people bother us, asking why the yard is like this. Or the police tell us we’re not supposed to do this,” she says. “But I don’t steal, nor do I ask the government for help, nor for welfare. I try to make my own living, and the city doesn’t understand that.” 

But while she may be doing right by taxpayers, the way city laws are set up, Naty rankles traditional shopkeepers. She competes, after all, with business owners who have followed the rules. Cecilia, who runs a neighborhood market on a commercially zoned street near Naty’s house, says, “We have to pay taxes and get permits in order to work legally. We have to pay bills, lights, water, everything. Many people who work outside don’t have a permit and don’t pay. So they get to save all that money, and we can’t.” 

Perhaps zoning laws could be altered to accommodate both those businesses that do have capital investments and those with very little overhead that are nonetheless important parts of local economies. It’s not as though zoning laws haven’t been changed before. The original rationale for zoning was to separate uses, thereby preserving the character of residential neighborhoods and ostensibly the value of the houses in them. But today, says Alan Bell, deputy director of planning for Los Angeles, the city wants to promote mixed use in commercial zones in order to create dense, livable neighborhoods. 

Mixed use is exactly what business owners like Naty have created—just not in the way planners envision it. Bill Fulton, a planning authority in Southern California who is also the mayor of Ventura, says that while he understands the desire of planners to preserve the character of neighborhoods, “character is in the eye of the beholder.” 

For example, it was long frowned upon in Southern California to have fences around front lawns. But in East L.A., those fences create social spaces where people celebrate, meet, and talk. So, he says, urban planning folks have become more tolerant. “As the U.S. becomes more immigrant, more ethnically diverse and more working class,” Fulton says, “we need to come to terms with the fact that we may not be able to maintain all those rules that emerged to create this pristine, middle-class suburbia.” 

From Bell’s perspective, “It’s an interesting policy question as to [whether] we would want to permit more businesses beyond what we currently allow in single family zoning.… It certainly is a valid question going forward, as to what should be the character of these kinds of neighborhoods.” But in order for the rules to change, there would have to be people clamoring for it, which, as Bell points out, isn’t happening.

That may be because the people who would benefit most from a change to the laws don’t know they have recourse to address it. Even if they did, though, planners like Fulton concede they have no idea what a mixed-use residential area would look like. No one wants neighborhoods to devolve into run-down, potentially dangerous areas with declining property values. So, would business owners like Naty have uniform wall units for selling things, to help keep neighborhoods looking neat? A design-approval board for front lawns? Such are the 21st-century quandaries for innovative planners to ponder.

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Image credit: Ed Ruscha, 1984, "City With the Jitters", oil on canvas, 36 x 40", 91x 102 cm (c) Ed Ruscha