It has been almost a year since Ivers Department Store, the big draw of the Highland Park shopping district, closed its doors on North Figueroa Street, dealing a blow to businesses all along the road.
Many of the mom and pop shops and businesses that front a 10-block strip of Figueroa between Avenues 50 and 60 counted on the foot traffic Ivers generated for 71 years, merchants say. "It hurt because Ivers' sales got a lot of shoppers here," said Wanda Hatler, president of the struggling Highland Park Chamber of Commerce.
Hatler, who runs a printing shop across the street from where Ivers was, said she sometimes catches herself staring at the empty department store at Avenue 58 and wishing it was still open.
There is a lot of wishing going on along North Figueroa these days.
Sale of Building Hoped
Merchants are wishing the Ivers building will be sold soon--as has been often rumored--to a new department store, or made into a shopping arcade. They are wishing that the renovation of the old Masonic Temple on Avenue 56 into a complex of offices and shops and the influx of young, upwardly mobile Latino and Asian businessmen into the community will add a spark to the Highland Park area of Los Angeles. They hope a recent cultural festival in the neighborhood let outsiders know that shopping on North Figueroa can be more pleasant than in impersonal malls.
"Even though we're down now, there are a lot of possibilities that we could fly," Hatler said. "Like somebody was telling me the other day: We're due."
A city-backed plan launched in 1978 to beautify and rejuvenate the area collapsed last year with little to show for it. So talk of a rebirth along North Figueroa is greeted with some skepticism, the dreams tempered with harsher reality.
"Everybody is kind of waiting and seeing," said George Raines, owner of the Sport Cellar, a sporting goods store just a few shops down from Ivers. "The business topic of the day is, what are they going to put into Ivers? There have been so many rumors, I don't even listen anymore."
Jess Ivers Jr., president of Ivers, said in a recent interview that his 37,000-square-foot building may be sold soon. However, he declined to give any details about such a sale other than to say that one of the offers he is considering is from a developer who wants to convert the structure into a shopping arcade.
In any case, Jess Ivers, too, is aware "they need something down there." He said he was forced to close the Highland Park department store because it was losing too much money, unlike the Ivers store that is doing well in La Canada Flintridge, a more affluent community.
Trouble in 1970s
By the time Ivers decided to throw in the towel, Highland Park had been down, if not exactly out, for quite a while. The strip, once a vibrant and fashionable suburban shopping district, has yet to recover from the commercial bloodletting it underwent in the 1970s from a prolonged recession and a profusion of shopping plazas and malls in nearby Eagle Rock, Glendale and Pasadena.
"It's rough to make a living in Highland Park, believe me," said Floyd Armstrong, owner and operator of Armstrong's Thrift Shop on North Figueroa, on a slow Saturday afternoon near the end of the month.
Business on North Figueroa tends to pick up only around the 1st and the 15th of the month, when welfare and other government assistance checks are delivered, Armstrong said. His business has been for sale since October.
On top of other problems, Highland Park gained a reputation for youth gangs that scared away some middle-class shoppers. Local police say that the gangs in the area are not as violent as those in South-Central Los Angeles but that they are active nonetheless.
Bill Warren, owner of Warren Stationery on North Figueroa and president of the Highland Park Symphony Assn., feels that the neighborhood has gotten a bum rap. So last year, he organized a local festival "because we wanted to show that this is not just a community of gangs and thieves, but that we had culture here." Included are such cultural landmarks as the Southwest Museum, Heritage Square and El Alisal, which was the home of Highland Park's most famous resident, Charles Lummis, who was a journalist and pioneer in the preservation of Southwest architecture and artifacts.
Another possible future attraction is the old Masonic Temple. A three-story brick building bought by private developers in 1983, the temple is undergoing renovation to bring it up to code under the city's earthquake ordinance.
Called the Mason Building by its owners, the temple is an imposing structure at Avenue 56 and Figueroa. Designated a historical monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board, it features Mediterranean-style architecture, with elegant arches on its second-floor balcony and elaborately carved wooden molding.
When work is completed, the ground floor will be rented to retail shops or a service business, said Allen Golden, who owns the building with partners Jerry Manpearl and Jerry Sullivan. The second floor, which is dominated by the oak-paneled lodge meeting room and a large dining room with full kitchen, will be rented for banquets and weddings, Golden said. Space on the third floor may be rented for offices, he said.
Golden said he expects that the earthquake fortification of the building will be completed in 90 days. Whether prospective tenants will be lined up by then is something Golden could not answer. "This is a high-risk area economically," Golden said. "Frankly, we're gambling. We're gambling that the neighborhood is going to get better and become economically viable."
One particularly frustrating attempt to make Highland Park more economically viable is still fresh in the memory of merchants. The Highland Park Improvement Assn., a quasi-governmental group that was overseen by the city's Community Development Department and given federal funds, had drawn up plans for a two-block village mall and beautification efforts.
Two businesses took advantage of low-interest loans to renovate the facades of their storefronts; some trees were trimmed, new street lights were installed, and concrete trash containers were placed on the streets, but no major construction took place.
Red Tape, Apathy
People involved attribute the demise of the plans to bureaucratic red tape, apathy and dissension among shop owners, and an inability to attract a large "anchor" store.
Despite that failure, Hatler has stepped up efforts to organize the strip's shopkeepers. Of a potential pool of about 400 merchants, only 155 have joined the chamber and fewer than a third of the members show up for the monthly meetings, Hatler said.
Language and culture--the area has a large Latino population and a growing Asian community--have been barriers to organization, Hatler acknowledged. But she said not enough effort had been made in the past to overcome those barriers. She is now organizing a sidewalk sale, something she said the area has not seen in years.
Hatler says she and her husband, Larry, have been fairly successful in the eight years that they have operated their print shop. Unlike many other merchants, she said, she has so much faith that the area is ripe for a turnaround that last year she purchased a beauty salon a few blocks away.
'It Can Come Back'
Waiting for improvement and trying to stay in business is "wreaking havoc with my nails," said Stanley Ward, owner of Good Housekeeping Furniture on Figueroa. Nevertheless, Ward has stubbornly continued to keep his doors open. "I don't want to miss the rebirth of this town," he said. "This used to be the Beverly Hills of Los Angeles. It can come back with some help."
The community, between Pasadena and Los Angeles, just west of the Arroyo Seco, was a desirable place to settle in the 1880s. The Los Angeles-San Gabriel Railroad that linked the two growing cities in 1885 caused a real estate boom. Elegant hotels, churches and schools sprang up, along with a notorious row of rowdy roadhouses.
North Figueroa became a commercial district and a popular thoroughfare for streetcars and automobiles. Then, in 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the first of Los Angeles' freeways, was completed and eventually replaced Figueroa as the main drag between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, cutting Highland Park businesses off from potential customers.
Influx of Latinos
In the past 15 years or so, there has been a large influx of Latinos. Census figures for 1980 indicate that Latinos represented 52% of the 42,673 people who lived in Highland Park.
Although many of the new Latino residents are believed to be undocumented workers, an increasing number are "young Hispanic yuppies," said Mike Hernandez, a native of the community who runs a bail bond and insurance business that specializes in immigration bonds.
"I believe they're the future wave of Highland Park," said Hernandez, honorary mayor of Highland Park for the past two years.
But Hernandez feels that not enough businesses in Highland Park are making an effort to appeal to the Spanish-speaking community. "A lot of business people tell me that there is no business in Highland Park," Hernandez said. "And I say to them, 'What are you doing to attract the people who live in Highland Park?' "
Serving Latino Community
One store that is making a concerted effort to serve the Spanish-speaking community is Peoples Department Store, a variety store selling everything from clothing to housewares to material for clothes. Inside the store are Spanish-speaking sales clerks and bilingual signs. Customers can also pay utility bills or purchase money orders there.
"Different kinds of people are moving to this area and we have to move along with the people," said store manager Jose Zepeda.
More recently, a wave of Asian immigrants has been moving in. Many of those immigrants have bought dying businesses in Highland Park and are working hard to revive them.
Jimmy and Mei Cheung are an energetic couple from Hong Kong who purchased the Owl Rexall Drug Store near Ivers in August. The business had been neglected to the point that half of the shelves in the store were empty when they bought it, the Cheungs said.
The shelves now are all stocked, and open spaces on the floor are stacked with paper towels and detergents.
The Cheungs keep their store open seven days a week, for as long as 11 hours on weekdays, and it was one of the few shops doing business on Memorial Day. Jimmy Cheung runs the pharmacy and Mei, a certified public accountant, doubles as bookkeeper and stock clerk.
Despite her efforts to offer a variety of merchandise, Mei Cheung said over-the-counter sales are not so good but the pharmacy is doing a lot of business. Still, she and her husband are not dismayed and figure that they, and the rest of the business community, will eventually come out ahead.
"Gradually, it's going to be good," Mei Cheung predicted. "It takes time--maybe 10 years."