What began as a regular community gathering at Mifflin Square two years ago ended last Wednesday with a visit from the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Responding to neighbor complaints, inspectors cleared out the Asian vendors that had become daily fixtures at the park at Sixth and Wolf streets.
Unlicensed and operating on public property without permission, the sidewalk merchants caused a nuisance for residents, many of whom complained about mounds of trash that went uncollected for weeks at a time, baking in the hot summer sun.
The foul-smelling garbage frequently drew rats and other rodents to the park, making neighbors wary of venturing into the area with their children.
L&I; officials stepped in because vendors were selling vegetables and fruit, as well as cooking food, without Heath Department regulations.
Neighbors wondered why it took the city so long to react.
"The city knew they were there. Police officers used to pass by all the time. A number of them used to get out of their cars and shop and joke around," said Kelle Wilson, of the 600 block of Durfor Street.
Wilson believes the city is to blame for the unsanitary buildup of garbage, noting that vendors frequently alluded to an agreement with the Streets Department regarding trash-collection duties.
"They cleaned up after themselves every day. They put all of their trash in bags and left it on the corners to be picked up," she said.
Wilson said she even spoke to someone from the Streets Department last year who acknowledged the workers had fallen behind with their trash collection.
However, city officials said there is no such agreement on record, and can’t understand why that type of arrangement would have been made for the unlicensed businesses.
"We’re not talking about some one- or two-day ethnic festival. What they had there was an ongoing, daily business," said First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district encompasses the park and surrounding neighborhoods. "In that sense, the city should not be obligated to remove their trash. As a daily business, they shouldn’t have been treated any differently than any other commercial entity."
David Seng, an advocate for the Asian community and director of operations at the Houston Community Center, Eighth Street and Snyder Avenue, acknowledged that the trash buildup was a serious concern to members of the surrounding neighborhoods. However, he believed there was some misunderstanding between the Asian vendors and the Streets or Recreation Department.
"If someone told them that they could pay to have their trash taken care of every day like other businesses, they would have done it," Seng said.
But DiCicco said that allowing a commercial business to operate on a public facility "would open up a can of worms."
Although city officials believe they responded to the situation correctly, Wilson expressed sympathy for the Asian vendors and their customers.
"They were very quiet and peaceful," she said of the crowds of people who frequented the sidewalk vendors. "They didn’t drink or start any trouble. The unity they showed was good for this neighborhood."
But other neighbors said they are simply glad to be able to breathe outside of their homes again.
"The stench reached all the way up to Ritner Street," sighed Rosalind Mayo, of the 2300 block of South Franklin Street. "I’m all for people getting together, but why did it have to be at a public park? The sidewalks were taken over and the filth was left behind."
The vendors typically started selling their goods at 2 or 3 p.m. every day, and usually stayed for six or seven hours, Mayo said.
She said she would like to see the Asian vendors operate in a designated area, an idea DiCicco endorses.
The councilman said he’s looking into ways for vendors to utilize stretches of Seventh Street the way merchants use the Italian Market.
"If they’re entrepreneurs, this may be an idea they want to explore," DiCicco said.
Seng said vendors are unwilling to speak about last week’s closure because they fear repercussions.
"You have to understand the history of people like the Cambodians," he said. "Where they come from, the police and the government are feared. People are executed for speaking their minds."
The merchants want to obey the law, but were not aware of the regulations governing businesses, Seng added.
"If someone would have come out and explained to them the process they’d have to go through to become regular, licensed businesses, they would have been open to it," he said.
L&I; officials intend to blanket the neighborhoods around Mifflin Square with multilingual fliers explaining the city’s licensing regulations.
When inspectors paid a visit to the park last week, many vendors said they did not speak English, according to L&I; Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi.
Seng acknowledged the language barrier, and suggested that both the city and the Asian-American community need to establish representatives to handle future issues.
He believes last week’s closure, which involved police and inspectors, was handled in an unnecessarily heavy-handed manner.
"That kind of thing doesn’t sit well with me," Seng said. "They’re quiet, peaceful people. They’re not drug dealers. The police scared them — the city would have made more progress if they just sent out caseworkers."
Many of the vendors immediately cleared out when they saw the L&I; logo.
Verdi defended the department’s actions.
"When people start cooking and selling food without wearing gloves, without washing their hands and without having restrooms around, we have to step in," he said. "It’s unfortunate, but we had an enormous amount of complaints."
Inspectors also confiscated an illegal ice-cream truck when they arrived to shut down the vendors.
L&I; will continue to monitor the park area to see if any vendors return.
"Little by little, we expect them to come back in the future. It’s not going to be an easy thing," said Verdi, adding that inspectors who visited the site on July 19 had their tires slashed while they walked through the park.
Mayo said she saw an elderly Asian woman briefly return to the park on Saturday, although without the usual crowd of shoppers.
"If people try to continue operating in the manner that they were before, enforcement will be forthcoming, and it will be severe," DiCicco said. "That park will not be allowed to be run as a commercial open-air market."
Seng said that the vendors at Mifflin Square understand why the city shut them down. Still, they are saddened to lose the cultural haven the market provided.
"There’s not a lot of places for them to get together down here, where they can feel comfortable and at home with their friends and their customs," he said. "The park was a place for them to catch up with old friends, play some games and enjoy food together."