BUSINESS

Huntington Park looks to bring shoppers back to Pacific Boulevard

Nelli Tamayo leaned on a pair of mannequin legs in blue jeans and flicked her fingernails, bored stiff.

Valentine's Day was almost here, and the 40-year-old store clerk saw few customers arriving at the shops on Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park.

"There's no love for us," she said, waving in dismissal. "No one comes to shop on Pacific anymore."

Not long ago, the 1 1/2 -mile stretch of Pacific Boulevard was a cultural and shopping destination for Mexican and Central American immigrants in southeast Los Angeles County.

Street cruising inspired a Mexican banda song, "El Corrido de la Pacific." It was a destination for street parties after Mexican soccer team victories in major tournaments.

But these days, Pacific Boulevard is struggling. Once, the shopping district boasted about 500 businesses. That number has plummeted to 381, city officials said.

Many blame the decline on an inevitable dynamic: Like young people everywhere, the children of immigrants don't necessarily like the same things as their parents. The generational shift has altered other streets that were once shopping meccas for immigrants, including Tweedy Boulevard in South Gate.

Xiomara Lira, 18, of Culver City said she came to Pacific Boulevard only because her dad wanted a specific T-shirt for his birthday.

"I just know that whenever we're going to a party and my dad wants to look all Mexican cowboy ... this is his place to go," she said.

Leaders in Huntington Park, saying Pacific Boulevard needs to change with the times, have proposed a $3.9-million redevelopment project.

"It needs a face-lift," Mayor Karina Macias said. "We want to give it a modern feel and a modern look."

On a hot late Thursday afternoon, there were more cars driving along the boulevard than people on the sidewalk looking for deals. An arcade center sat almost empty; a man watching an action movie on his smartphone sat near the entrance demanding $3 in admission.

"I only get paid to say you need $3, OK?" the man said when asked by a Times reporter.

No one stood outside the box office of the only movie theater in Huntington Park. At least a dozen empty storefronts displayed "for lease" banners.

As part of the redevelopment project, city officials say, old coin-operated parking meters will be replaced with kiosks. There will be new street signs and better lighting. Bike lanes will be added along the boulevard, and drought-resistant plants will line the sidewalks. City officials say they will allow developers to put up new buildings to lure mainstream retailers and restaurants.

Although the project is still in the planning stages, they say that some companies, including Target and Blink, a national fitness club, have expressed interest in coming to Huntington Park. They hope to attract more businesses to cater to a broader audience.

Even in February, when high school students often begin to look for prom dresses and tuxedos, business is slow, said Jorge Castro, 35, who works in one of the many bridal and quinceañera stores. But he worries that major retailers would drive out small businesses and change the culture of the boulevard.

"If that were to happen, then that it's for Pacific Boulevard," Castro said.

"The dresses we make here are made by hand, by us," he added, gesturing toward colorful quinceañera dresses. In the back of the store, a woman sewed a pillow for a wedding ceremony.

But Tamayo said Pacific Boulevard needs dramatic change.

"We need a cleansing," she said in Spanish.

She pointed to old, empty newsstands and the antique light post with a broken lamp in front of the store where she works. She said it's been broken for five years. For this stretch of Huntington Park to improve, it needs to have more varied shopping options, she said.

"Just on this block alone there are 17 bridal shops," Tamayo said. "It's too much. If all the stores look the same, people aren't going to come here to shop for anything else."

She said at least half of the customers who come are older and living on fixed incomes. During the weekends more people show up, but Tamayo said most of them "go to the restaurants and are not buying clothes."

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For the moment at least, given how desperate things seem at times, she's not too worried about being pushed out by large retailers.

City leaders say they want old and new stores to coexist on Pacific Boulevard.

"We just want to make it different," Macias said.

Many years ago, when the region was made up mostly of white working-class residents, Pacific Boulevard, with its department stores and car dealerships, was the only shopping district in this part of southeast L.A. County.

But business began to slip away from the district with the introduction of freeways and air-conditioned malls, said Jim Roberts, who served on the City Council from 1970 to 1990.

A proposed freeway with an offramp near the shopping district was never built, leaving it relatively secluded. People with more disposable income began moving to other towns, such as Downey and Cerritos.

Then factories began to leave cities in this part of L.A. County. Huntington Park, South Gate, Maywood and Bell became increasingly Latino, with large immigrant populations.

The arrival of immigrants, mostly from Mexico, kept the shopping district from dying off. But after a while, Pacific Boulevard became known as much for soccer celebrations that sometimes got out of hand as it did for shopping.

Its appeal among Latinos was also waning. U.S.-born Latinos and those raised in their native country tend to have different tastes. Huntington Park's council, skewing younger than before, began to look for ways to reinvent the shopping district while preserving some of its cultural past.

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"That's the issue: Are they going to progress, or are they bound by the culture," James Rojas, an urban planner, said of younger Latinos. "You're dealing with identity, culture and political social issues. How do you weave them together? How do you interject this place with what is contemporary today?"

Huntington Park will have competition, as nearby cities such as South Gate and Downey have already invested in projects that have lured mainstream retailers to their cities.

Shopping with her three children for shoes, Iran Dozal, 40, of South Gate said they didn't see anything they liked.

"There's really not a lot of options here," she said. "They have a lot of quinceañera and bridal shops and vaquero stuff, but that's it."

Daniel Hernandez, 26, of Rialto said he used to spend more than $1,000 on clothes whenever he shopped along the boulevard. Now he says, he goes to malls and shopping centers on the Westside.

"This place hasn't changed. If you look around, the clothes look the same like they did in the '90s," he said. "It's stuck in time."

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives

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