At the sound of a dinging bicycle bell, the children at Lulu’s Montessori in City Heights run to the screen door overlooking Van Dyke Avenue and shout, “Bolis! Bolis!” For some of the tiny tots in their navy blue uniform shirts, bolis is one of the few words they know. In English, it means ice pop, an innocent word in almost any context, but in this neighborhood, the paleteras — those who sell the bolis, also known as paleta, from pushcarts or vans — are at the center of a community debate.
“My friends and I are used to the paleteras from growing up in Mexico,” says Lulu Quiros, proprietor of Lulu’s Montessori. “But we were surprised to see them in the U.S.”
It’s a hot afternoon in early November, and Quiros and her coteacher, Denisse Heredia, share a bag of churros con chile y chamoy purchased from a neighborhood paletera. The children gather around the women, pestering for a taste of the snack. “Me!” they call, and “I want!”
A few blocks away, at the corner of Swift and University, stands My Back Yard Nursery, Art and Garden Center whose owner, George Billingsley, is president of the City Heights Business Association. The association administers both the maintenance assessment district and the business improvement district in City Heights, deciding how district fees assessed business and property owners will be spent to benefit the community. Since last July, Billingsley has made it his mission to bring illegal street vending to the attention of City authorities. His list of complaints is long.
“We see these people all the time, selling out of these carts. We don’t know exactly what they’re selling. They claim they have health permits, but they have no permits. They have no business licenses,” he says. “It’s unfair to the businesses in City Heights — and in San Diego, for that matter.”
Billingsley’s crusade is not limited to paleteras. He believes that “chronic yard sales” and “any type of selling that isn’t licensed” need to be eliminated from the streets of City Heights.
To this end, he has contacted city councilmembers, the City’s Department of Neighborhood Code Compliance, the district attorney’s office, and the police.
“The police department says their funding is cut, and they apologized, but they thought this was not going to be such a priority,” he says. “But it’s really not a police action unless it interferes with the law and public safety. It’s a Neighborhood Code Compliance action.”
Billingsley has stated his case at meetings, over the phone, and in letters. But so far, he has been disappointed by the lack of enforcement.
“We had a big meeting downtown at city hall in August,” says Billingsley. The meeting was convened to address code compliance issues in City Heights. Councilman “Todd Gloria was there and a representative from Marti Emerald’s office. We had all kinds of attorneys. The police were present — Captain McKinney. We had representatives from all different groups that were there and trying to get some kind of solution for this situation. But the very people in charge of enforcing these codes and ordinances weren’t even at the meeting.”
Billingsley adds that the meeting did produce one satisfactory result. Captain McKinney promised to help educate the pushcart vendors about the laws.
In late September, Billingsley sent a list of “addresses that were chronic with yard sales and where illegal vending of all sorts takes place on a constant basis” to Councilman Gloria’s representative for City Heights, Courtney Thomson. Other community members, he says, also submitted lists.
“This is my stance,” he told me over the phone in early October. “I want to see some noticeable decrease in this activity by the end of this month. And if I don’t, as president of the City Heights Business Association, I will organize the businesses to stop paying their fees — business license and business improvement fees, health licensing fees, and certain insurances. It’s not fair for [business owners] to pay fees while others are selling our products and not paying fees.”
The Friday before Halloween, it seemed to Quiros that Billingsley had gotten his way. Around 3:40 p.m., Quiros stood in front of Florence Griffith–Joyner Elementary School on the corner of Van Dyke and Myrtle, waiting to pick up one of her day-care charges. She saw a white pickup truck driven by a police officer and followed by a police car. In the back of the truck sat a paletera’s cart, and in the back of the police car sat the paletera. Both vehicles slowed as they approached two nearby vendors who sell regularly on that corner.
“The last thing I saw,” says Quiros, “was that the police stopped and called out to the two other paleteras. I don’t know what happened next.”
The San Diego Police Department could not comment on the incident, and representatives from Neighborhood Code Compliance were not available to confirm whether Billingsley’s threats had spurred the office to action.
On Thursday, November 4, Billingsley stated, “Even though I see a slight improvement, I don’t want [the City] to become apathetic and think I’m satiated.” He went on to say, “If I don’t continue to see some real clampdown, I’m going to go to the news media, such as Channel 10, 51, that have a nice public forum. In doing that, it will coerce the City into action. And it will be quite embarrassing.”
Quiros, Heredia, and Iris Perez, the parent of one of Quiros’s students, speculate about what the neighborhood would be like without the paleteras.
“It would suck,” Perez says. “It would be like if they tore down your favorite store.”
The other women agree that these vendors have a special place in their hearts. It’s not just the convenience of purchasing Tostitos or paleta de agua de sandia right outside their door. It’s about the neighborhood’s culture.
“I’ve been buying stuff from them since I was little,” Perez continues. “I even used to want to be a paletera because of them.”