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East L.A. getting a long-overdue face-lift

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The padlock swinging from the gate suggested that there was once something special in this place, something to keep, something to guard. But whatever magic there might have been was long gone by the time Frankie Firme arrived this week, stepping through a hole in the fence into weeds so dense they muffled the bustle of his beloved East L.A.

In the back of the lot, arsonists had gotten to one abandoned shack and gang bangers to another, peeling back its corrugated walls to paint their hieroglyphics inside.

"Sad," Firme said. He's 52 now, an influential disc jockey and Chicano music historian. He sees urban blight here like anyone else, but at least his view comes with a soundtrack. Even now, with his shoes crunching on broken bottles, he can't help but hear it: "Let's take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!"

That introduction, shouted by an East L.A. band called Thee Midniters, was the opening of the instrumental song "Whittier Boulevard." In 1965, cruisers, low-riders and brown-is-beautiful pioneers made the song an Eastside anthem -- and cemented Whittier Boulevard itself as a defining pathway in the development of Latino Los Angeles.

Today, at long last, the boulevard is getting a face-lift.

It would be a stretch to call it a revitalization project because much of the street -- a 16-mile thoroughfare stretching from downtown Los Angeles through Montebello, Pico Rivera and Whittier and into the northern tip of Orange County -- was never much to look at.

Still, tens of millions of public and private dollars have begun filtering in along the boulevard, targeting unkempt medians, crumbling curbs, abandoned lots. There are dozens of condos, apartments and houses going up, and officials have hatched plans for nearly a dozen mixed-use projects in coming years, with European-style, street-level shops and restaurants below homes.

If it all falls into place, it will be the largest civic commitment to the boulevard since the first asphalt was poured. Perhaps the boulevard -- long maligned and neglected but arguably as important to El Movimiento as any school walkout or farmworker rally -- is finally getting its due.

Rebuilding the boulevard will be a daunting task. Evidence of that is everywhere.

It's in the bathroom of a McDonald's near Atlantic Boulevard, in East L.A., where competing gangs have put graffiti on the door, floor, walls, sink, soap dispenser, toilet seat and toilet paper dispenser.

It's down the street at the Golden Gate Theater, glorious when it opened in 1927 and now empty, stripped of its ornate facade and browned by age and smog.

It's in the city of Whittier, near Whittier Boulevard and Colima Road, where development is so uneven that there is a sex-toy shop next to a children's furniture store.

It's in the abandoned lot that Firme walked through this week. In the early 1960s, he said, the lot was one of a handful of hot spots where a new culture was developing around the twin pillars of Chicano music and cars.

It might not look like much now, he said, but back then one of the little buildings on the lot -- the one since torched by arsonists -- was home to a thriving bootleg business that churned out tapes and eight-track recordings of Chicano bands. They included Thee Midniters -- two E's in "Thee" to avoid litigation with The Midnighters -- Cannibal & The Headhunters and The Premiers.

The other building was a makeshift garage. Cruisers brought in cars to get them souped up, sometimes with "cherry bombs" -- a reverse muffler of sorts that gave cars a loud and illegal brap-brap-brap sound -- or by lowering the bodies of cars nearly to the ground.

Those who could not afford to lower their cars in a garage did it the old-fashioned way: by driving with chunks of concrete in their trunks.

Every weekend, cruisers would gather -- many of them at a staging area around Calvary Cemetery in East L.A. -- and then "take a trip down Whittier Boulevard."

Similar cultures existed elsewhere, of course. Here, though, cruising meant far more than a mere distraction. Firme noted that when he was young, his father -- a butcher -- could not secure financing to buy a new car because of his ethnicity. So fixing up older cars became an exercise in pride. A nice car represented freedom, and promise.

"The whole thing was about mobility," said Carlos Montes, 60, who cruised back then and went on to become a prominent Latino leader and activist. "You might live in the barrio -- but you had a car."

Pride in cars inspired pride in ethnicity and heritage, and the boulevard took on a seminal role in the development of the Eastside.

It was the site of numerous protests and rallies, including an infamous day in August 1970 when a protest against the Vietnam War turned violent. By the end of the day, three people were dead, including Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar, who also was news director at Spanish-language television station KMEX-TV.

The 1980s brought the installation of a landmark steel entry arch over the boulevard in East L.A., still a powerful symbol of pride.

You can map the effort of Latino families to chase down prosperity and stability along Whittier Boulevard; many of them started in downtown Los Angeles around World War II, then moved to East L.A., then to Montebello, then to Whittier, then, perhaps, to the hills of La Habra or deeper into Orange County.

"This was the spot," Firme said. "This was the migration route."

Today, Whittier Boulevard is like an old man's spine: still prideful -- exhibited in tiny shops whose signs say Lolita's Tamales, Vasquez Shoe Repair, Armando's Bakery -- but bowed from the weight it has carried over the years.

Past efforts at rehabilitation along the boulevard have failed, but there is enough of a critical mass of face-lift projects and development proposals this time to offer hope.

In East L.A., county officials are preparing a $4.5-million project. Workers will repair curbs and sidewalks, add palm trees and new bus benches.

Separately, code-enforcement officials are conducting a scrub of stores along the boulevard near the 605 Freeway; dozens of shopkeepers have been asked to correct signage, parking and other problems.

Montebello has hatched an ambitious overhaul. Toward the eastern city limit, boxer Oscar De La Hoya is backing the development of 80 Mediterranean-style condominiums.

The city recently spent nearly $12 million on a beautification project, and construction was completed recently on a project at Whittier and Montebello boulevards that includes 55 senior-housing rental units and 23,000 square feet of commercial space.

In Whittier, between Virginia and 1st avenues, officials held a groundbreaking two weeks ago for a $40-million, 96-unit town house development. The city also is preparing to bury power lines and make other improvements along a stretch of the boulevard between Santa Gertrudes Avenue and the La Habra city line.

"People are rediscovering these communities," said Jeff Collier, Whittier's head of community development. "A lot of people are realizing that this can be a wonderful place to be."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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