San Jose: Street Vendors Not ‘Clean’ Enough for Super Bowl 50

The Super Bowl’s Golden Year—the big Five-Oh—kicked off a week of celebration Monday night in San Jose’s SAP Center. As one of the hosts of America’s largest sportsball extravaganzas, the city is as ready as it’s ever going to be.

Along with Monday night’s enormous opening night celebration, a couple exciting things this week for the public: the football-fieldification of San Pedro Street and a beer pavilion/NFL village at Cesar Chavez Park.

Downtown San Jose is poised to become a Garden Of Earthly Delights for the estimated 100,000 or so visitors from across the nation who will flood her streets, their collective excitement eclipsed only by that of the local businesses ready to fulfill their insatiable demands.

But this garden has walls, and as per usual, those who could benefit the most from the occasion are about to be left on the outside as the merrymaking begins.

“The occupation that I have found myself in is that of a street musician,” Walt Hansen told the city’s residents late last month, in an open letter to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo posted to his blog. “I drop a hat at my feet, and live off what donations are placed there. I never ask for a dime, not one.”

If you’ve ever set foot in Downtown San Jose, then you’ve seen Walt, even if you’ve never really looked at him: a tall, slender, older gentleman, with a weathered, careworn face partially obscured by a perpetual scruff of beard. He can usually be found leaning quietly under an alcove beside the Camera 12 Cinemas, gently serenading passers by with his flute as it gleams softly under the dim fluorescent lights. It’s ethereal, captivating, a perfect soundtrack to the cityscape. And for the patrons of Super Bowl week, that soundtrack almost never existed. Walt almost never existed.

“Recently I was handed...an ordinance that’s gone into effect for the upcoming Super Bowl week,” his post continues. “This ordinance states that I will not be able to legally play anywhere in downtown San Jose.”

The day before Walt published his blog entry, Mayor Sam Liccardo, whose office issued the letter, was in attendance at a conference hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama on ending veteran homelessness. I do not know whether Walt is homeless or not, yet it hardly matters; as a veteran, his words have teeth.

“San Jose is telling me, ‘we don’t care that you served your country, we don’t care that you add to the flavor of downtown day in and day out,’” he writes. “San Jose is telling me, ‘go to hell.’”

It didn’t take long for Walt’s blog post to go viral across a number of social media channels, forcing the city to respond. Kim Walesh, San Jose’s director of economic development, was placed squarely in the hot seat.

“It's not true that musicians are being asked not to play that week,” she told the Mercury News this past Monday. “I'm not sure where they're getting this from.”

The city is chalking it up to a public misunderstanding of the language used in the ordinance: according to the Merc’s report, the policy applies to the scale of a performer’s equipment, not the performer him or herself.

Walt’s flute could hardly be called obstructive, but given the circumstances, the city's sudden permissiveness hardly appears magnanimous.

Downtown San Jose's mobile vendors—the folks you see pushing around food carts and the like—will not be so lucky. They are to be excluded from downtown this week, remanded to the exterior of what city official Teri Killgore referred to as the “clean zone” during a meeting at City Hall back in November.

Of course, the city was issuing permits to certain members of the unwashed masses to take part in the festivities, which could be found directly behind Arthur Dent's bypass proposal at the City Clerk's office.

“But the plans were on display . . .”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That's the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice, didn't you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

—Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I’d rather not see a repeat of the glut of hot dog vendors that clogged the streets during Christmas in The Park. At one point, there were at least 10 surrounding the ice rink next to Cesar Chavez Park, each one selling the exact same product. At the same time, I'd rather deal with an aggrieved sense of smell—due to an overabundance of beef brine—for a week than deny those same vendors access to what will easily be San Jose’s largest revenue-gathering opportunity for small businesses this year.

Father Jon Pedigo, with Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, agrees. He’s been agitating for street vendors for quite some time now with great success, and he didn't hesitate to make his displeasure known on the evening news. “[A] public rule that doesn't study the impact of a community, it's another misstep of people that are in power,” he told reporters when the decision was announced, over the heads of the street vending community. “When you take away [their] vending income, you’re basically taking away food from [their] children.”

Killgore and Company stress that the “clean zone” ordinance is the only way to protect public safety and public health, due to what she referred to as “guerrilla marketing.”

It’s disappointing that San Jose’s media outlets didn't demand that she elaborate on this notion, as it likely would have turned into some racist argle-bargle about the way street vendors call out to the public to get attention, which would likely have made the ordinance DOA. Last time I checked, street vendor callouts don’t involve tiger pits, tripwires or poison darts, so I’m not exactly sure what she’s worried about. But I have a hunch.

Making San Jose easier to swallow for Middle America’s diabetic masses should not involve sanitizing the streets of their local color, quite literally in this case.

Let's not kid ourselves: the street vendors in downtown are predominantly Latino.

Must we continue shamefully hustling them out the back door when company arrives? I for one am tired of kowtowing to the rest of the country in what it thinks Silicon Valley should be—leave the respectability politics to those who aren't busy maintaining the information superhighway.

Peter Allen, an art community leader running for San Jose City Council’s District 6, said much the same thing.

“The city obviously needs to leverage the Super Bowl to boost revenue,” he told me in a recent email, “but I think we can do that and still allow for our organic culture to thrive in the same space.”

It’s that “organic culture” that makes San Jose special, that has brought us to a place of prominence on the world stage, that got the attention of the effing Super Bowl Committee in the first place. To carefully and deliberately erase that culture in order to impress outsiders and make a buck is egregious, and for Mayor Liccardo—who campaigned and was elected upon a platform of preserving and expanding the very “organic culture” of which I'm referring, it's the height of hypocrisy.

Walt concludes near the end of his letter, “Mayor Liccardo, are you going to tell a normally accepted member of downtown San Jose that he can stand outside and look in, but please don’t expect to be welcomed at your party?”

Well, Mr. Mayor, are you?

Randle Aubrey is a lifelong Bay Area resident and the proprietor of the political commentary blog SOAPBOX, as well as a co-host on Face For Radio, a weekly pop culture podcast. You can find SOAPBOX at www.getuponit.org, and Face For Radio at www.echoplexmedia.com.

10 Comments

  1. Middle America is coming to San Jose? Middle America does’t pay $4000 bucks a seat to see a football game! Organic culture?

    Well Walt as a tax payer and a vet that’s lived in SJ for the last 40 years I can’t say I was any more welcome in downtown than you are, No one has put a dime in my hat. I’m only welcome if I bring money and feed the meter!

    Now does that make you feel better?

  2. Last time I checked this is San Jose, Ca not TJ,MX. Do you think really have permits to be on the street. What about the actual vendors that pay the city to be in their spot, do the city health inspections, pay their taxes, etc, etc.

  3. There are food vendors that pay thousands of dollars and get inspected regularly for health standards. These are the real organic culture people who are adhering to laws and health requirements. Don’t advocate for people in wood carts that can spread disease and sidestep laws.

    • You won’t mention *which* food truck because you don’t know. This is a two year old video from a youtube channel from a guy that curates videos of maggots in food. The video also doesn’t mention names either, and the person who posted it got the burrito from a “friend of a friend” (from the video: “A friend’s wife sent her brother…”).

      I think there’s a story in the treatment of the local homeless, and I think there’s another one about the treatment of street food vendors. Walt is neither a street peddler or street food vendor (they are regulated differently). He’s probably classified as a panhandler by the city, and he’s definitely homeless. I don’t think either story is well served by mashing them both together.

      Personally, I think that local businesses other than hotels are going to see a dip in business during the Superbowl event. Regulars are going to stay the hell away from downtown San Jose, and the only venues that will be making money will be in the geometric area between the stadium, the hotels, and the parking.

      The profits are going to be made by the NFL and it’s chain of contractors; the hoards of off-duty cops that are providing security, and the security companies that will be contracting the cops, and fast food places, and food vendors inside the stadium. I’d like to read *that* story in San Jose Inside.

      • Oh I know the truck, the owners very well. I just want to save them some embarrassment. Just about everyone at my work has stopped eating off trucks because everytime, without fail someone gets sick from eating off one.

  4. I’ve dropped a dollar into Walt’s hat now and then; not that often actually, since Walt isn’t much of a flute player, if the truth be known. But that isn’t the point, is it? Unlike the aggressive SF panhandlers, Walt bothers no-one, puts a little lilt in the air; and that’s the kind of thing that’s rare in sterile downtown SJ. To ban Walt is totally misguided, especially since it’s to sanitize DT SJ during the NFL’s Super Bowl Week; the same uber greedy NFL that required Denver punter Britton Colquitt to pony up $1,800 for a ticket for his TWO WEEK OLD daughter to attend SB50 with her Mom. Banning Walt is the crime. Now food safety, that’s another thing entirely. A buncha fly-by-night operators with no address and no insurance and no accountability in the event of food poisoning should not be allowed to operate at any time of the year. Let Walt play. Ship all the bogus food vendors back to TJ, even if they didn’t come from there.

  5. The Mayor did that to the entire City of San Jose for not demanding more attention/spotlight on our City so ALL locals business could benefit from it. The events they did have were during the week and not advertised well. SF couldn’t even accommodate all the people coming to the NFL village they had to close it. Did it ever dawn on anyone the Superbowl actives being in SAN Jose would have made more sense, we are bigger we have the space. People would go to SF anyway for all the tourist stuff.
    Who is gonna foot the bill for all the cops sitting downtown not doing anything while everyone went to SF?! So sick of our junior city Council who has no clue how to manage this big city.