The Informal Economy: Michael Jackson Edition

I knew it was going to be a madhouse in downtown L.A. for Michael Jacksons memorial service, but I had to go see what it was like for the urban novelty of a huge swath of downtown closed off for thousands of fans and mourners.

Read Time: 3 minutes

July 7, 2009, 8:43 AM PDT

By Nate Berg


I couldn't resist. I knew it was going to be a madhouse in downtown L.A. for Michael Jackson's memorial service, but I had to go see what it was like -- not because I'm a super fan, but purely for the urban novelty of a huge swath of downtown closed off for thousands of fans and mourners.

But what really struck me as I was wandering around amongst the masses was the huge percentage of them that were neither fans nor mourners. Lined along the sidewalks leading to the memorial's venue were dozens of vendors, selling everything you could think of with Michael Jackson's name or face pasted on. From buttons to t-shirts to hand-painted portraits, the informal economy was booming down at MJ Central.

Michael Jackson Button Vendors

In this video of the sidewalk leading up to the venue, vendors are selling everything from posters to stickers to tickets into the memorial service itself.

Planetizen - Downtown Los Angeles Michael Jackson Memorial Street Vendors from Urban Insight on Vimeo.

I don't want to blow things out of proportion, but for a lot of people, this event was kind of a big deal. You can read all about the excitement and anticipation for the memorial all over the mainstream press, but one point I think is worth re-stating here is that this was an incredibly unique event for any city. And the city treated it that way.

The (not incredibly coherent) map below shows the streets closed or affected by the memorial, and you can see it's no small footprint.

Los Angeles Street Closure Map

Thousands of people attended, both with tickets and without, jamming streets and sidewalks. Despite the peculiarity, this was a very urban moment for an otherwise underutilized downtown area.

And the city's informal economy responded as expected. I saw dozens, but there very well could have been hundreds of people selling memorabilia, food, water, and probably a whole lot of single silver gloves.

Michael Jackson T-Shirt Vendor

It might seem tacky or disrespectful to turn a funeral into a money-making opportunity, but I guess that's how business works. However you want to lay your moral judgment on these vendors, I think they offer an important example of something cities should start to think harder about. Street vending is a vital part of any active urban area, and while it would seem to be a response to vibrant places, I think it also plays a big role in making places vibrant.

MJ Memorabilia and Water

People like to interact, people need things, and -- especially right now -- people need jobs. Making it easier for people to legitimately utilize the public-ness of streets and sidewalks for commerce would be an easy way to create those needed jobs, serve the wants and needs of consumers and create some much-needed interaction in areas that are increasingly devoid of people.

So, sell on, Michael Jackson t-shirt vendors. Fill that niche and provide all you can. You may not be curing the economy, but you're at least offering a glimpse of how local, informal businesses can contribute in a not-unpositive way to the character and vibrancy of cities.


Nate Berg

Nate Berg is a former contributing editor for Planetizen and a freelance journalist. He has contributed to The New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired, Fast Company, Metropolis, Next American City, Dwell, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, and Domus, among others.

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