Weiner Takes All

Want to make a little easy money? Whatever you do, don't go into business hawking hot dogs on the street. It's a jungle out there.

Often the banter is less friendly. Azucena says that when someone tries to muscle in on her turf, she responds with a tabaquera tipo nicaragiense, a type of verbal assault perfected in her native land. "They've never heard anything like it before," she laughs, revealing massive amounts of dental gold. "Occasionally I have a problem, but most vendors know that this is my place."

Her friend Dominga Rivera, who sells hot dogs not far down First Avenue in front of the Claude D. Pepper federal building, agrees. "We figure that if someone has put up with rain and wind and blazing heat for years," Rivera says, "you have to respect their spot."

But for every old-timer such as Rivera or Azucena, there is a vulnerable newcomer like Cesar Mondrag centsn. Ignorant of the city's policy or aware that it goes largely unenforced, these vendors say they have paid, not only for their carts, but for the sidewalk they rest on. Just as often, a disillusioned vendor will attempt to recoup an investment through resale. One woman says that a year ago, when she first set up her cart on SE First Avenue, she was accosted by a vendor who claimed to have paid for the spot and who wanted to resell it for $2500. Rather than pony up the amount, the woman moved to another corner.

"You hear rumors of these transactions," confirms Wally Lee, an assistant city manager and the director of Public Works. "But so far we've never received any kind of official complaint. People will tell you that spots have been sold, but they will never get specific. They will never give names."

The DDA's Henry Johnson, too, laments all the abuses. But aside from claiming to spend a great deal of his time speaking with the vendors, he seems uninterested in investigating instances of possible fraud, and says he knows of no evidence against anyone in particular. "My personal feeling is that whoever is controlling this thing is taking advantage of folks who are ignorant of the laws," he says, pointing out that the vast majority of vendors are Central and South Americans, many of whom are undocumented workers. "They don't know it's illegal when someone says, 'I'll give you this spot for 5000 or 10,000 dollars.' Others prey off them, but because these are cash transactions, they are very hard to prove. The police can't do anything unless the people file formal charges. And people don't file formal charges because they don't know the process."

Both Johnson and Lee are looking to the Miami City Commission to solve the vending problems, and the city attorney's office will soon begin preparing a new ordinance for downtown. Similar to legislation being proposed for Coconut Grove, it will probably call for a bidding system to formalize competition for spots. Details of the plan are still being worked out, but Lee says the ordinance will set a maximum bid and a term for which a spot can be held (most likely one year). If two or more peddlers offer the same amount for a spot, the winner will be selected at random.

Joel E. Maxwell, the assistant city attorney responsible for drawing up the proposal, says it may also include a provision limiting each company or individual to only one spot. "The idea is to try to get as much as possible for use of the public right-of-way and at the same time avoid locking out the little guys because they don't have as many assets," says Maxwell.

Wally Lee expects the commission to vote by December. "I have heard about people selling spaces. But I'm not interested in what has happened in the past," Lee says. "I feel that if we can just pass the ordinance, all of that will disappear."

The paneled wall beside Waldo Faura's desk suffers from an extreme case of plaque buildup. Among the scores of items nailed to it are commendations from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Better Business Bureau, and a Certificate of Program Completion from the University of Miami School of Business Administration. The gaps are littered with everything from old calendars to coffee-stained memos and newspaper clippings. Shining like a pearl amid the detritus is a photograph of Faura shaking hands with President Clinton. As a leader of Dade County's Republicans for Clinton during the presidential campaign, Faura will proudly tell you, he was one of those Cuban Americans invited to the White House to celebrate Cuban Independence Day this past May 20.

In his cramped office not far from his friend Amado Yaber's bodega, Faura speaks enthusiastically about his efforts to help vendors and his role as president of the Miami-Dade Vendors Association. He notes that some 120 hot dog vendors have paid $50 apiece for membership in the association, which is working to improve service in all of Dade County. (The county is home to an estimated 1000 licensed food vendors, according to the Division of Hotels and Restaurants. Some 300 of those are hot dog vendors, and officials guess that at least 100 more unlicensed vendors operate in Dade.) Many of the carts downtown sport green and orange umbrellas that bear the association's name, and its work has not gone unnoticed at city hall. Faura shows off a letter from Commissioner Victor De Yurre, dated May 17, 1993, congratulating him and his association for their good work.

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