Tiny, Crowded Cudahy Pins Its Hopes on Rebirth Through Redevelopment

Times Staff Writer

James (Robbie) Robertson remembers well what this city was like when he opened a hobby shop here in 1946.

Back then, Cudahy was little more than a sleepy hamlet on the fringe of the Big City, a Podunk where chickens clucked in front yards of ranch houses and residents strolled past the neatly painted, mom-and-pop shops lining Atlantic Avenue, the community's major commercial thoroughfare.

"It was rural, with mailboxes out front of every place," recalled Robertson, a dapper man with the silver-rimmed spectacles and upturned white mustache of a Kentucky colonel. "It was like the Old West for years."

Those days, however, are long gone.

Today, Cudahy officials say their town is the most densely populated city west of the Mississippi River, a crowded, mile-square municipality etched out of the Los Angeles megalopolis--a tiny city with big-city problems.

The ranch-style houses have been replaced by rows of drab stucco apartment buildings. Nearly a third of the city's 19,700 residents are living at or below the poverty level. Crime and gang-related violence are on the rise. The city's commercial heartland bears the telling scars of blight. Redevelopment efforts, which began nine years ago, have so far done nothing to cure the problems.

It's 'Gone Downhill'

"The city's gone downhill, especially along Atlantic Avenue," Robertson said one recent afternoon as he watched a pair of prostitutes parade by his store. "The boulevard is as rundown as it's been since we came here, and that's been more than 37 years."

But many city officials and residents in Cudahy think the city is on the verge of a civic revival.

Earlier this month, the City Council approved the acquisition of 1.4 acres for a $1.5-million commercial complex, a modest cluster of small stores along Atlantic Avenue that officials hope will spur further construction in the area and send out a signal that Cudahy is serious about redevelopment.

"In most cities, this would be a very small project," City Manager Gerald Caton said. "But in Cudahy, since we're so small and have never done a project before, it's very important. It will get us on the development map."

More ambitious redevelopment deals are in the works, including an eight-acre shopping complex proposed for the city's northern entrance at the site of a defunct Boys Market. As city planners envision it, that center would contain a large grocery store, something the city has been without since Boys closed its doors a year ago.

In addition, the Redevelopment Agency has proposed another commercial complex for Atlantic Avenue and several developers have private projects for the downtown region on the drawing board, officials say.

Those projects, officials hope, will help improve the city's tight economic situation, turning what is today a trickle of sales and property taxes into a flood of revenue for city coffers.

Disposable Income

"I think the market forces are there so it can happen," said Richard Tillberg, assistant city manager. "It's not like we're going to give a party and no one shows up. A lot of people in the development community are waking up to the fact that the entire Southeast area has a considerable amount of disposable income."

Despite such upbeat assessments, some residents and merchants remain skeptical about the prospects for a full-blown renaissance in Cudahy. They say the city's low-rent image, raucous political climate and poor record on redevelopment remain solid barriers to anything but a modest revival.

"I'm not waiting for the great Utopia to happen. It won't," said James Luna, a market owner and newly elected president of the Cudahy Chamber of Commerce.

Since the city launched its redevelopment effort in 1976, council members have failed to grasp the demographic realities of the community, Luna said.

Census figures indicate about 70% of the residents are Latino. Large families predominate; more than 80% of each household has four or more people. More than three-quarters of the residents live in apartments and the average yearly family income of $13,000 is almost half the county average.

"For a long time, the council had false illusions of redevelopment bringing in big shopping centers," Luna said. "They've got to realize what this city is and bring in something that people can support, things like discount stores with cheap prices. Only then will we get some money coming in."

"Our type of business district isn't like Wilshire Boulevard," said Mark Guho, owner of a building materials firm. "There's a market as long as a merchant caters to the people living here."

Violent Image

Although the reported crime rate in Cudahy is similar to that in surrounding cities, many outsiders regard the city as "a small, Mickey Mouse town" where gangs roam the streets and violence is common, Luna said.

Even the most optimistic supporters of the city's efforts acknowledge that Cudahy has an image problem. City Manager Caton said many residents do not know how to pronounce the city's name (it's CUD-a-hay, not CUD-a-hee). Some don't even know the city's name.

"One of the major problems with Cudahy is that many residents simply don't know they live in Cudahy," Caton said. "They think they live in Los Angeles. For them, this is just a place to come home to at night."

The Chamber of Commerce, though, sees things in a different light. The group's optimistic motto adorns a circular seal bearing a picture of high-rise buildings surrounded by palm trees: "The only way is UP."

"Redevelopment will give the city an identity it can be proud of," Councilman John Robertson said. "That identity right now is of vacant lots, welding shops and broken-down buildings."

Joseph Fregeau, a former Planning Commission chairman and area resident since 1937, said the city's poor image has caused many businesses to look elsewhere.

"You find a few bad apples in a barrel and people say you have a barrel of bad apples. That's the trouble with Cudahy," Fregeau said. "If you had a choice of developing in some nice area in Orange County or developing here, where would you want to go?"

But some city officials feel businesses faced with such a choice may begin to consider Cudahy.

Prime Location

Tucked between the Los Angeles River and the Union Pacific Rail Road tracks, Cudahy is straight up the Long Beach Freeway from the booming ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Officials say the city is in a prime location to snag some of the light industries and commercial distribution operations that are moving to the Southeast area because of the skyrocketing port trade. In addition, the cost of commercial land in the city is generally cheaper than in surrounding areas.

"I think there is a future," said Tillberg, who oversees the city's redevelopment efforts. "We're right on the major shipping corridor. I think some business owners are waking up in Irvine and finding their rents are substantially higher than they'd like."

But the future of Cudahy does not lie merely on blueprint paper, city officials say. They are quick to point to several tangible improvements that have already taken place:

- In an effort to upgrade Atlantic Avenue, the city spent $787,000 four years ago to repave the roadway, put down brick-laced sidewalks and relocate utility wires underground.

- An ambitious parks and recreation effort has culminated in the construction of two new parks since 1980, giving the city four facilities with a total of 15 acres.

- After going for decades without a single doctor or dentist in the city limits, Cudahy got its first medical complex in 1983, a nine-office facility that mostly serves the area's large Latino community.

- Work will begin later this year on a $2.5-million, 50-unit residential housing complex for the elderly that is being funded by a federal grant.

Such achievements have been welcomed by the community, which did not incorporate as a city until 1960.

The area originally was part of Rancho San Antonio, a 29,500-acre land grant awarded to Antonio Maria Lugo, a Spanish settler. At the turn of the century, a meatpacker named Michael Cudahy bought a section of the rancho and began growing crops.

In 1908, the property was subdivided into acre tracts. During the decades that followed, small farms sprouted up. The commercial district along Atlantic Avenue grew during the years following the Depression as Dustbowl immigrants streamed to the area seeking work in the new industrial plants.

The neighboring cities of South Gate, Huntington Park and Bell began to nibble away at the land during the 1950s, prompting calls by old-time residents for the community to incorporate. After failing to muster the required votes in 1959, an incorporation drive succeeded in 1960.

During the 1960s and early '70s, the city grew substantially; hundreds of apartment buildings were constructed. The city fathers, however, refused to subdivide the massive farm lots--which are about the size of six normal city blocks--into smaller, more manageable plots. Instead, scores of narrow, dead-end alleys were run into the lots to accommodate the frenzy of apartment construction. Today, much of the city's crime occurs in those alleys, which are difficult for police to patrol, authorities say.

Along with the apartment construction came several mobile home parks, most of them peppered among commercial buildings along Atlantic Avenue. City officials say those trailer parks cut up the commercial zone, making it more difficult to stitch together the kinds of large tracts that are most salable for commercial development.

It is unlikely, however, that anything can be done about the parks because of the political clout of trailer park residents and the high cost of relocating those people, officials say.

"In the perfectly planned city, you would not have trailer parks in the middle of your commercial district," Caton said. "But since they're there, you have to face the reality that it doesn't make sense to try to move any of them."

Maintenance Violations

With only one full-time code enforcement officer, the city has also been hard pressed to keep up with maintenance violations in the maze of apartment complexes that mark the landscape, Caton said.

The city's efforts to upgrade the commercial district along Atlantic Avenue, meanwhile, have been anything but a success.

In the years since the city began redevelopment, numerous commercial projects have been proposed, but nothing has been built under the auspices of the Redevelopment Agency.

"We've had developers laugh at this town," Planning Commissioner Jene Oliver said. "The way they figure it, the only time a business gets good customers is on the first and 15th of the month--welfare day."

Part of the problem, officials say, is that the agency has little money to work with. Property taxes from the redevelopment area, Tillberg said, are just enough to pay off the agency's $200,000 annual debt on the $1.5 million in bonds it sold to start redevelopment in July, 1984. Officials expect to use that bond money to help subsidize future developments.

Another hitch has been the fractious politics of the city. In recent years, the council has divided on numerous issues, but the major political tiff has revolved around a private developer's effort to build a poker parlor in the city.

"I think all the infighting has hurt us significantly in terms of attracting developers," said Councilman Robertson, a staunch opponent of the proposed gambling house.

Battles Have Hurt

Mayor Lynwood Evans, who supports the club, agreed that the council's political battles have not helped the city's redevelopment efforts. But Evans said the biggest obstacle has been the council's reluctance to put up the money to help subsidize pioneer projects.

"We could have had this city done by now, but the council has always thought first about being frugal," said Evans.

Evans acknowledges he is irked that surrounding cities such as Huntington Park have lured numerous development projects while Cudahy's efforts have stalled.

"Why can Huntington Park do so much and we can't?" Evans said. "We've got to be more aggressive. We've got to plunge in there and do it. You never make a touchdown unless you grab the ball and run."

That, officials say, is exactly what the city's recently approved commercial complex will do, acting as "a keystone" for future redevelopment.

"I feel like this little area will take off if one good development comes in," said chamber manager Frances Reynolds. "If we can just get ground broken here for one development, it will spur the others. We've got so much potential here."

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