On two blocks in the heart of the Adams-Morgan business district, shoppers can buy almost anything they want right on the sidewalk. Colorful scarves and fluffy ear muffs. Knockoff Yankees caps and Mexican rock by the group Los Bukis. Belts, incense and a half-dozen long-stemmed red roses for $6.
Those items and more are sold by the neighborhood's street vendors--small business at its rawest.
But D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), concerned that vendors are illegally hogging metered parking spaces and blocking loading zones, this week introduced a bill that would ban them from Columbia Road between 16th Street and Kalorama Road NW.
"I admire their hard work, but there are [parking] restrictions they have to live with," said Graham, whose district includes the Adams-Morgan community. "I can't provide Columbia Road as a parking lot."
Vendors, however, view this as more than a fight over parking, a decades-old problem in a community that turns into a jampacked venue of bars and pricey restaurants at night. The vendors, most of them immigrants, see Graham's legislation as an attack against Washington's most ethnically diverse neighborhood, where sidewalk stands are the closest thing to inexpensive open-air markets back home.
"This is a Latino tradition. They're trying to take that away from us," said Blanca Aquino, a Salvadoran immigrant who is president of the Columbia Road Vendors Association.
"People come here, not just to shop, but to visit, to pass the time, to meet other people," said Aquino, who has sold a little bit of everything--cassettes, jackets, necklaces--at her stand on Columbia Road for the past 12 years. "We provide that moment of alegria [happiness]."
But the law is the law, Graham said. The vendors "work very hard, and I respect them," he said. "I respect the immigrant experience . . . but a modicum of respect for our laws is important."
His bill, introduced Tuesday, was drafted because of what he calls the "van problem." Vendor vans, which are used to haul and store merchandise, are parked on the street where their owners set up their sidewalk stands. And there they stay--colorful, beat-up warehouses on wheels--all day long.
During the past year, Graham said, he met twice with the vendors, their attorney, the Latino Economic Development Corp., and a representative of D.C. Vendors United to try to resolve the problem.
A parking lot, with a group discount fee, was found a few blocks off Columbia Road, said Christine Hurley, business program manager of the Latino Economic Development Corp. But vendors complained that it was too far away and that their vans might be vandalized if they couldn't keep an eye on them.
Vendors prefer a parking lot closer to their stands, but those spaces already are rented, Hurley said.
Graham also spoke to the parking enforcement division of the Department of Public Works, hoping to encourage a crackdown on illegally parked vans. But the vendors would just move vans if they saw meter readers approaching, Graham said.
Vendors say they are being unfairly targeted.
"Two hours [limit should be] for everybody, not just for vendors," said Naimatullah Hashimzada, as he stood in front of one of his buckets of peach-colored gladioli. "People who have the stores park there all day, too."
Hurley agreed: "If there was consistent enforcement of all vehicles and not just vans, that would be better. But their vans are most easily identifiable, and they're there all day."
Ben Zweig, owner of Zweig Photography, a business his father opened almost 50 years ago on Columbia Road, said the sidewalk outside his shop is a magnet for Latino life. On weekends, more than a dozen vendors crowd both sides of the street, some trying to out-blast the others with the latest merengue or cumbia. "Almost like you could be in San Salvador and not know the difference," he said.
But Zwieg, treasurer of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association, stressed that he has no problem with vendors. "My problem has to do with consistent enforcement of parking regulations so my customers can find parking when they come here."
Ted Walker, vice president of D.C. Vendors United, said the group will oppose Graham's bill. Walker prefers "some designated vending sites" instead of a total ban.
Graham has written Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and asked him to recommend to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) that the number of vendor spaces in the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Columbia Road NW be limited to three sites per block. A law allowing such a restriction was passed by the D.C. Council in 1996.
Street vendors fear that an outright ban would further change the character of Adams-Morgan, where gentrification has transformed many immigrant tenements into expensive yuppie abodes.
"There's a lot of foreign people now, and [the sidewalk] gets more crowded and congested, and they don't want it," said Ivory Hollis, who has sold hats and scarves in front of the Safeway for years. "They want this clear so they can jog through."
CAPTION: Naimatullah Hashimzada, who sells flowers in Adams-Morgan, says vendors are being targeted unfairly.
CAPTION: Ivory Hollis, 42, has sold hats and scarves in front of the Safeway supermarket in Adams-Morgan for years.
CAPTION: Blanca Aquino, a vendor in Adams-Morgan, leads the Columbia Road Vendors Association. The street market atmosphere "is a Latino tradition," she says.