Negotiating Informality: Social and Economic Strategies of Latino Food Vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District

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Published in: Participatory Urbanisms, 2017.


In the US, the practice of street food vending has historically been perceived as an unorganized and marginal activity conducted by minority populations. Urban historians have traced adverse views from a variety of prejudices that relate to unsanitary practices, low-economic status, and illegality. Unfavorable views can also be linked to the mid-20th century modernist planning and design ideals that created orderly, auto-centered city streets and did away with activities perceived as inefficient and unproductive that impeded upon this view. In 1963, anthropologist Clifford Geertz studied street markets and bazars in Indonesia claiming that they hampered the development of a western-style, firm-centered economy. Opposed to efficiency and organization, he suggested street vending relied on practices rooted in local customs and social exchange. Growing anxieties over the sanitation of food handling throughout the 19th and 20th centuries also contributed to a widely held view that food prepared on the street was unhygienic and unhealthy. Given these judgments, little research addresses the potential benefits street vendors bring to communities and the constraints that vendors face when operating a productive business.