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D.C.-backed weekend Latino food market upsets some restaurateurs

Okelle Bemtura from El Salvador eats chicken soup at Mixtec, a Mexican restaurant on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan. Some area restaurant owners want weekend street vendors out of a neighborhood park, saying that the market cuts into their business and that it's a matter of fairness because the vendors do not adhere to the same city health and permit rules.
Okelle Bemtura from El Salvador eats chicken soup at Mixtec, a Mexican restaurant on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan. Some area restaurant owners want weekend street vendors out of a neighborhood park, saying that the market cuts into their business and that it's a matter of fairness because the vendors do not adhere to the same city health and permit rules. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 7:09 PM

Armando Melgarez shares a broom, a bathroom or a soccer score with the outdoor food vendors who gather three days a week just steps from his Salvadoran/Mexican restaurant in Adams Morgan. He feels a kinship with the vendors, some of whom come from the same part of El Salvador where Melgarez was raised.

But they are also his competition.

"I don't like to tell them I'm not happy, because I feel like they are part of the family," Melgarez said. "On the other hand, we're losing a lot of business."

Melgarez, who owns Combinacion on Columbia Road, is one of several Adams Morgan businessmen protesting a two-year-old market at Unity Park. To restaurateurs, their objections are a matter of fairness. Vendors sell pupusas, stewed meats and fruit water without traditional permits, and the market's operation is subsidized by the D.C. government.

To supporters, the market has brought a vibrant, festive flavor to what was a grubby eyesore. It has legitimized the work of entrepreneurial immigrants who had been selling illegally for years, they say.

"Do you want to put them out on the streets, or help them be part of the American dream?" asked Jackie Reyes, who grew up nearby, buying mangoes from illegal vendors. Reyes is an aide to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). The ward is home to the city's largest concentration of Latinos, who make up about 8.6 percent of the District's population.

Unity Park, at the intersection of Columbia Road, Euclid and Champlain streets, is more pocket plaza than park, a concrete-and-brick triangle that once provided a resting spot for pigeons and the homeless. For the past two years, the space has been transformed on weekends, from Friday through Sunday, with white tents, colorful tablecloths and flags of vendors from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

The park's singular sculpture, entitled "Unity in Diversity," displays words such as "sharing," "support" and "harmony." But the existence of the market has sparked tension among neighbors.

The market was created by the city's Office of Latino Affairs to address a persistent problem: Illegal vendors were often chased and fined by police officers from their previous perch outside Sacred Heart Church, just off 16th Street NW. But there was no legal path to vending in Adams Morgan because the city's regulations for street-food sales were, and still are, in flux.

The Latino affairs office designed the program to help vendors get the business skills to become fully licensed or open their own restaurants. The office got permission to operate from the city's Parks and Recreation Department and provided $30,000 a year to support the program.

Vendors such as Patricia Cruz, who once sold tamales out of a tippy pushcart, say the program has given them the security, pride and freedom to create a broader range of dishes. Cruz, who is from Mexico City and lives in Columbia Heights, said she makes about 50 percent more at the market than she did on the street.

She and her dozen colleagues attract an eclectic, loyal following of day laborers, neighborhood families and workers from the nearby Mexican Consulate, who long for an authentic taste of their native countries.


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