When Jamie Edwards was looking for a place to take his grooming business, he thought he had found the perfect spot at Stakely's Barbershop on busy Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles.
The shop was in the middle of a thriving commercial corridor, just steps from the Exposition Line and near a residential area full of potential clients. Edwards started work at the shop in January, along with 10 other barbers and stylists.
But almost immediately, business began to plunge as construction began on the new Crenshaw/LAX light-rail line. Street closures made it difficult for clients to find the shop. Foot traffic vanished after crews blocked the sidewalk, and Edwards' fellow barbers began to flee.
"It's so frustrating," Edwards said, standing behind his empty barber's chair on a recent Monday afternoon, on what used to be his day off. "We have families to feed and bills to pay."
The Crenshaw/LAX line has been pitched as a lifeline to merchants here, the arriving trains expected to bring in a wave of new customers. To help business owners survive the years of construction, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has agreed to give qualifying shop owners as much as $50,000 a year until the work is done.
But the relief money won't be available until next year, and some merchants worry they may not qualify for the funds. Some wonder whether they can hang on through the holidays.
"Little by little, they are going," Hyung Paik, the owner of Crenshaw Discount Store, said of her regulars. "That's big trouble. Christmas is usually busy, but we don't know this year."
There are about 550 businesses, mostly mom-and-pop operations with fewer than four workers, that probably will be affected by construction on the $2-billion Crenshaw/LAX project, Metro said. The 8.5-mile line will run from Exposition and Crenshaw boulevards to Aviation and Century boulevards, and will include eight new stations — four of them on Crenshaw.
With the holidays approaching — the biggest shopping season of the year for most merchants — a 2-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard will be closed through Dec. 14, though the thoroughfare was opened briefly for Thanksgiving.
At Stakely's, three barbers have packed up their shears and left. Those who remain said they have experienced as much as a 75% decline in walk-in business. At Ebony Hair and Wigs, clerks said business has dropped steadily during the road work. The story is similar at Crenshaw Discount Store.
"The metro project, Crenshaw to LAX, should not be in the business of killing businesses, particularly small businesses," said County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "These hard-working business owners need and deserve assistance. They have suffered from no doing of their own."
The financial assistance, which comes from a $10-million-a-year business interruption fund, will go to merchants who have been in operation at least two years, are in good financial standing and can prove they've lost business.
Many are skeptical they will be eligible.
"They are going to need receipts and proof of lost income," said Daymon Cole, a 39-year-old barber who said he's been to the emergency room three times this year because of an eye irritation that he believes is caused by dust from the construction. "We are getting paid cash on demand. We are losing here."
Most of the barbers at Stakely's won't be eligible for the assistance because they haven't been at the location long enough, and as independent contractors they may have trouble proving they are losing business.
Roadwork along this stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard between Jefferson and Coliseum started about a year ago. Lanes were closed and streets shut down to move utility lines in preparation of heavy construction, tangling traffic in the area. But at least businesses were still accessible, residents and shopkeepers said.
In January, crews began work on an underground box where workers — laboring in a cave-like environment — will construct the light-rail line over the next 3 1/2 years, said Charles Beauvoir, project director of MTA's Crenshaw/LAX line.
Now traffic is being diverted in the area while the crews build the lid to the underground box. Next, a tunnel boring machine will be brought in to start the actual excavation work for the rail line. Construction crews have been working around the clock to complete the initial roadwork by Christmas, Beauvoir said.
"We have been pushing hard to try and get this done quickly and just get out of the way," he said.
From there, construction will move south as crews begin work on two other underground stations in the area.
Metro has taken other steps to help businesses that have been hurt by construction. The agency launched an "Eat, Shop, Play Crenshaw" campaign in October to encourage residents to support the local businesses, and a business solution center was created at the Urban League to provide free technical advice, business planning, bookkeeping and marketing assistance, as well as web development.
"This helps the mid- to long-term health of the business," said JC Lacey, Metro's business liaison. "Of course, the dollars always help more for the very short term."
Most business owners, though aggravated by the construction, agree that the Crenshaw/LAX line ultimately will be good for the area.
"It might be disruptive and inconvenient today," said Teri Williams, president of OneUnited Bank, which is located in the strip mall. "That's a small price for the long-term benefits."