City Paper is not for tourists
In Ryan Grim’s article about the vendors of Langley Park (“Gone With the Vend,” 5/12), there are a few issues that need to be addressed.
First, we must clarify where and what Langley Park is. It’s a neighborhood, not a town, on less than a square mile of land in Prince George’s County. One section of the neighborhood is mostly houses with comfortable working-class residents; the other section is filled with garden apartments occupied by the working class and poor. Most of the residents are immigrants from Central America, and many do not speak English well. In 2000, according to the Census Bureau, Langley Park had a per capita income of about $12,000; for Prince George’s County, the figure was about $24,000. The neighborhood has a nonprofit association, Action Langley Park, but there is no local authority; rather, the authority is the county government, including the county council on which Councilmember Will Campos sits.
Second, there are two types of vendors in the apartment-house section of Langley Park: About 40 vans (sometimes more), mostly run by men, sell hot and cold food, and up to 10 women sell fruit and cold drinks from small tables on medians. About half of the van vendors are in a formal association, and they are being helped by lawyers and others at CASA de Maryland. The women have formed an informal association, Las Vendedoras de Langley Park, and they are mostly on their own. All the vendors may be classified as micro-entrepreneurs. That is, they are small businesspeople who are learning how to operate a business and may someday “graduate” into a regular retail business. A few past vendors have done so.
Third, vendors have sold food in the apartment-house areas of Langley Park for more than a decade. Twice over this period of time, for a day or so, they have been challenged by officials. The rest of the time, thanks to the understanding of police officers and others, they have been allowed to sell. Indeed, police officers often purchase food from vendors. The reason the vendors are in the apartment-house areas is that there are many working-class and poor residents, with a 2-to-1 male-to-female ratio, who, because of long hours and poor food preparation skills, find the purchase of some food from the vendors to be an affordable way to get some nourishment. The many vendors who make money in the area are proof that there is a demand. And the money made is essential for paying the rent and other necessities. If two-thirds or more of the vendors are forced out, many investments will be lost, and some vendors will be homeless.
Fourth, the big mystery is why at this time the councilmember representing Langley Park and other areas of his district has decided to clamp down. Many people tell me that Councilmember Campos, during his election campaign, promised not to try to change the status quo. I have heard many explanations. One is that the moneyed business interests supporting his re-election want to push toward gentrification so that their properties increase in value. (Your article refers to “pressure from the area’s business community.”) Gentrification is certainly a threat, especially if the Purple Line and/or the Mother Teresa Center is built. The food vendors are seen as inappropriate for the gentry, and the people who get their nourishment from the vendors are also seen as inappropriate. Another guess is that Councilmember Campos, a man of humble Central American origins, wants to distance himself from the life he left. Either way, the politics of the situation tends to favor eliminating some or all of the vendors. After all, most of the people who buy from the vendors are not eligible to, or are not likely to, vote in the coming council election.
I don’t know if either explanation is correct. But I do know that the food vendors are important in the life of the Central American immigrants in Langley Park. The vendors provide a way of easing into American culture, affordable food, a place to gather for socializing (there is no public area in the neighborhood where people are able to do so), and a crime deterrent in the spirit of Jane Jacobs’ idea of “eyes on the street.” All are important during these stressful times for immigrants. And these important factors are why hundreds of residents have signed a petition asking the county government to provide any needed food-service training and certification, as well as a sufficient number of locations in the apartment-house areas where they can continue to sell their food while making a living.
Professor, Urban Studies and Planning ProgramThe University of Maryland
The City Paper Responds:
“It is a town,” says Carrie Wheeler of the Prince George’s County Assessment Office, when asked whether the county considers the unincorporated Langley Park a town or a neighborhood.