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By the spring of 2010, when street food's primary expression in San Francisco jumped to trucks, a new subculture had found a place in the city's culinary life. It appealed to eaters generally younger than those with the kind of checking-account balance that makes an $80 dinner at a neighborhood bistro a regular possibility. And other observers have pointed out that street food is a peculiarly democratic medium: Dude with the big bank balance is waiting in line for his sisig tacos same as you, and has to perch his ass just as uncomfortably as yours to find a place to sit and enjoy them.
Today, street food has become an important feature of life in San Francsico, especially for those in their twenties and the relatively affluent. That's precisely the demographic Berkeley's North Shattuck Merchant's Association hoped to attract to an aging Gourmet Ghetto, when it collaborated with Cohen to launch an East Bay version of Off the Grid. These days as many as 3,000 people flood the area on Wednesday nights to eat from food trucks. Far from draining business from brick and mortars, the long lines for Off the Grid mean many become discouraged, and end up grabbing a pizza at the Cheeseboard, or a sandwich at Saul's Deli. There, trucks aren't in competition with restaurants: They're helping them survive.
In short, legal street food can be good for the life of a city, good for expanding a region's pool of dining customers, and good for encouraging entrepreneurship — hell, three goals most Oaklanders would likely vote for if sealed up tight and presented as a bond measure.
Except, of course, for anyone who sees street food as a scourge. Just how many are in the scourge camp became painfully clear to street-food supporters like Elizabeth August the last time Ed Manasse presented his recommendations for writing a new street-food ordinance before the whole city council.
Back in May, Manasse presented a series of changes to the city's regulations, scheduled to kick in over two phases. To anyone with even a mild fondness for taco trucks or organized food pods, they seemed like rational reforms: opening up the city to mobile vending, reducing separation requirements from vendors to parks and schools, shifting enforcement from the police to a new administrator whose position would be funded by permit fees. On the other hand, pretty much anyone who saw food trucks as a threat to brick-and-mortar businesses, or as facilitators of crimes ranging from drug dealing to gang banging, was horrified.
The Oakland Restaurant Association and Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce felt like Manasse's office had essentially ambushed them with the proposed changes, without time to offer considered feedback. "When they came back to the economic development committee back in May, they were expressing things like, 'We were hoping we could have this in place by the summer,'" recalled Paul Junge, the chamber's public policy director. "I think members of the business districts and the restaurant association both, I think they felt like, 'Gosh, we wish we could have had more conversations, earlier conversations.'"
Junge's members weren't buying it. Street-food epiphanies and the lives of cities? Nice bullshit, dude. Brick-and-mortar owners were more concerned about paying mortgages, dealing with taxes, and worrying about all the vacant storefronts in their districts, and the thought of some asshole truck pulling up to the curb out front and draining off customers? It wasn't going to happen like that. Not if they had any say in the matter. Turns out they did.
Manasse the wonk had done a good job coming up with a rational set of reforms, but he'd failed to sell them. Maybe that's not surprising, given the schizophrenia on the city council. Councilwoman Desley Brooks and council President Larry Reid, who both represent East Oakland, said no way, according to August. "They were like, 'Whoa, wait a minute. There are too many problems here with safety, with prostitution, with drugs. We need to look at this in a more detailed way with key stakeholders.'"
Worries about crime aren't unfounded. Many loncheras in East Oakland do business until midnight or later, and do find themselves magnets for illegal activity. Hell, park a bookmobile at San Leandro Street and 85th Avenue at 2 a.m. some Saturday and things are guaranteed to get a little sketchy. Fatal shootings occurred near taco trucks parked in East Oakland in both 2008 and 2009, and Fruitvale's association of lonchera owners has worked with police to try to prevent things from getting ugly — removing tables to prevent loitering, installing lighting, even calling police when they notice something shady going down. A food-truck pod in Temescal might be safe, but how do you allow that without also opening the door to increased risk in other parts of the city, especially in a time of strained police resources?
Even a street-food supporter like Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan recognized that Manasse had bobbled the opportunity for reform, certainly in time for the vending primetime of summer. "The broadness of the ideas was the problem," said Ada Chan, policy analyst for Kaplan. "Reb had recommended from the beginning that staff not do that, but maybe pick a few specific areas that could be supported. Let the vendors be successful in a few limited areas, and then expand it."
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