Los Angeles street vendors express themselves through art

Chenita Smith (right) helps a customer pick a Valentine’s Day gift in Crenshaw on Monday. (Lauralys Shallow/Medill Reports)

By Lauralys Shallow
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles is more than the glitz and glamour that people see in movies. It’s the staked tents and foldable tables with homemade gifts on the corner of Crenshaw, a man banging a drum and selling jewelry in Leimert Park and the cart full of art waiting for customers on the Venice Beach boardwalk. 

An array of two dozen Valentine’s Day baskets were displayed beneath a white tent on the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Homeland Drive on Monday. Soaps, sweets and champagne were bundled in baskets decorated with pink, purple and yellow confetti and ribbons. 

For 20 years, Chenita Smith, 42, has been street vending on holidays. What started out as a talent for crafting became a passion for curating personalized gifts to sell to people.

“I love crafting,” Smith said. “I love making gifts for people to give to other people. Crafting was just a natural talent, and I figured I’d make some money off of it. I have a whole other 9-to-5. This is just the passion.”

Smith spent three weeks assembling her Valentine’s Day gift inventory from other Black-owned vendors and designing the baskets. The gifts vary in price from $20 to $200 depending on the contents included in the baskets and the amount of creativity that went into the design.

“When customers make purchases, my craft, my skill and my talent are being validated,” Smith said. “The fact that customers find value in my product, they’re validating that what I’m pricing it at is valuable.”

One of the Valentine’s Day gift baskets Chenita Smith was selling on Monday in Crenshaw. (Lauralys Shallow/Medill Reports)

A half-mile away from Smith at Leimert Park, Raymond Lewis, 55, displayed his knack for making jewelry. Seated in a chair with a djembe drum between his legs, Lewis was next to his table of stone necklaces. Lewis has been street vending during the weekdays for five years, and he plays the drums on the weekends. 

“I just came out here to Leimert Park one day, and I set up a table and started talking to people,” Lewis said.

His wife makes heirlooms, and she showed Lewis how to wrap jewelry. Lewis uses silver, gold, copper and brass wires he purchases from Home Depot, and he goes to gem events to buy his stones. He also adds beads to his necklaces and rings.

Handmade necklaces and rings that Raymond Lewis sells at Leimert Park during the week. (Lauralys Shallow/Medill Reports)

“I like creating stuff with my hands,” Lewis said. “I see all this stuff going on around here that needs to be changed and fixed, and by sharing my jewelry with people, I feel like I’m making a positive change.”

Lewis said he spends about an hour and a half making a piece, and he prices the jewelry at $40 to $80. However, he does negotiate with his customers. If someone does not have enough money for his asking price, he is willing to make a deal with them. 

“I believe that my customers see something in me because all of this jewelry is a reflection of me,” Lewis said. “It was my intuition, my hands that created it, and when they see it, they see an expression of me and the stone. It makes me feel complete because I’m expressing myself through whatever I create, and when somebody else sees it, there’s a connection between me and them.”

About 10 miles west of Crenshaw on the Venice Beach boardwalk, Maven Roze, 31, unloaded dreamcatchers and acrylic paintings from his van. He hung the dreamcatchers on a tan umbrella attached to a cart loaded with his paintings.

“Two years ago, I sold everything I owned and came out here with just a backpack,” Roze said. “I ran a flea market in East Hartford, Connecticut. I realized I wanted to try street vending because I wanted to sell my own art full-fledged.”

Roze used gems, hemp rope and anodized aluminum to create his dreamcatchers. He made his dreamcatchers in three different sizes, priced at $20, $40 and $60. His abstract acrylic paintings are 12-by-12  inches and 10-by-8  inches, and they cost $50 to $100.

The cart Maven Roze pushes to the Venice Beach boardwalk to sell his art. (Lauralys Shallow/Medill Reports)

Roze said the murals he saw in Venice inspired his paintings.

“There’s a lot of influence and a lot to be influenced by here,” Roze said. “I see murals every day. So, while I’m skating by the mural, as I look at it, I’ll think about their process, and I’ll go try a little bit myself.”

Roze’s first batch of paintings was a series of 12 palm trees, and he said it took him three months to finish. Now, Roze said he gets six done in two days, but he spends another week adding the final touches to his pieces. He has gotten quicker with painting, but his philosophy with selling has always been about percentages.

“The biggest draw for me to come out here was because there’s so many people,” Roze said. “For me, I focus on percentages. If 10,000 people walked by you, maybe 10% will stop and look and 5% will buy. So, it’s just a matter of numbers.”

Lauralys Shallow is a media innovation and content strategy graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShallowLauralys.