Turning Chicago Streets Into Streets of Dreams

Chicago street vendors are enjoying a victory that was more than eight years in the making. In 2009, the leaders of the city’s vendors’ association read our study on the Windy City’s licensing laws called Regulatory Field: Home of Chicago’s Laws and contacted author and IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship Director Beth Kregor. The vendors’ representatives were glad Beth had touched on barriers to vending in her report but said she was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Tamale vendors were regularly stopped, fined and even arrested for selling homemade food in their neighborhood of Little Village. There was nothing they could do to defend themselves because there was no license they could get to operate legally. From that day forward, the IJ Clinic has focused on securing economic liberty for Chicago’s pushcart vendors—many of whom are immigrants.

Before the Clinic got involved, the Chicago City Council paid more heed to restaurants’ requests to shut out competition than a street vendor’s right to earn an honest living. Lawmakers listened to unfair prejudices against hard-working vendors instead of pleas for ordinances aimed at creating a license. But between 2009 and 2015, the IJ Clinic worked tirelessly with the vendors’ association to draft and pass an ordinance legalizing street food.

For most vendors, the new law presented an opportunity to come out of the shadow economy and play by the Health Department’s rules. But low-income Mexican immigrants in Little Village were still living in fear, because there was no affordable licensed kitchen space where they could comply with the law they helped to pass. The Clinic’s work was not done. In order to fully comply with the law, vendors must prepare their foods in a commercial kitchen. But many already established commercial kitchens in Chicago are full or too expensive. The vendors realized they could open up their own space that better met their needs. To assist them, we shifted from a coalition partner to the attorneys for the vendors. The IJ Clinic represented the newly formed nonprofit Street Vendors Association of Chicago (SVAC), as members pooled their money and manpower together to open their very own shared kitchen.

SVAC vendors do not have much but what little they do have, they are willing to invest in a piece of the American Dream. The Clinic sat in on an SVAC meeting last winter and watched as each of the vendors pledged $100, $200—sometimes $300—toward making the shared kitchen a reality so they could finally operate legally.

Mighty as the vendors of SVAC are, their journey would have been impossible without the IJ Clinic. We helped vendors understand the law and change it, and now—the last and most monumental piece—we are helping them build infrastructure to comply with the law. Not too long ago, vendors risked hefty fines or even arrest for selling food to provide for their families. Thanks to the Clinic, vendors now have a clear path for building prosperous, legally compliant businesses.

During the SVAC kitchen ribbon-cutting celebration on June 14, vendors spoke optimistically about growing their businesses. The ribbon cutting was an event that marked their nearly decade-long journey to change the law and serve delicious treats on Chicago’s streets without fear of harassment, fines or arrest. The IJ Clinic is proud to represent SVAC, and we will continue to fight until Chicago becomes freer for all entrepreneurs.

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