Merchants Trying to Revive Business District in Atwater

Times Staff Writer

In 1925, the Glendale Evening News heralded the tiny northeast Los Angeles community of Atwater as Southern California's fastest-growing suburb.

"From a Japanese flower garden with but a half-dozen scattered dwellings to mark the site in 1922, the section has grown to a thriving community of 7,500 population, boasting more than 125 business institutions and occupying a place in the limelight of development of greater Los Angeles," the paper said in its edition of March 24, 1925.

Sixty years later, Atwater, bounded approximately by the Los Angeles River to the west, Glendale to the north, San Fernando Road to the east and the Glendale Freeway to the south, doesn't make headlines anymore. And the ethnically diverse residents who live in the area's older, well-maintained, blue-collar neighborhoods like it that way.

But for many merchants along highly traveled Glendale Boulevard, the community's primary retail shopping area, business could be better.

Atwater is minutes from downtown Los Angeles, bounded by the relatively affluent communities of Silver Lake and Glendale. The nearby Golden State Freeway connects Atwater with nearly all the city's major freeways.

Yet for all the traffic, its central locale and the diversity of retail stores, Atwater's shopping area has been suffering a steady decline in business since the late 1960s. The downturn, some Atwater business people say, is attributable, in part, by aging storefronts, the construction of shopping malls nearby and apathy among merchants typified by the closing of the area's Chamber of Commerce in 1982 because of lack of interest.

"No matter what we did, the chamber didn't get the participation we needed," said William Narez, manager of Atwater's Crocker National Bank. "Then it slowly died."

At its peak, the Atwater chamber had 60 or 70 members, Narez said. But, after a couple of years, "I'd call meetings, and, instead of five or six board members, we'd only get two or three," he said.

The dissolution of the chamber repeated a pattern set after the 1960s, which was Atwater's last great decade of retail sales.

"The chamber was mainly a membership of about 40 business people," said Al Slaten, president of the chamber in 1968-69. "The storefronts were the chamber; anything we could do to keep the business flavor going.

"We used to have midnight sales, we had a Miss Atwater contest tied into our annual chamber dinner, we ran a carnival once a year, a contest for the best-decorated house at Christmas.

"Membership was never a tremendous amount, in the vicinity of 140. It ran like that for seven or eight years."

Atwater seemed more like a small community then, a place where you knew everyone by name, Slaten said.

By the time Slaten left the area in 1975, he had sold the last of six storefronts he owned on Glendale Boulevard, his ledgers for the previous five or six years showing a steady decline in sales.

The area was clearly changing, he said. There were malls going up everywhere and business activity declined, as did merchants interested in taking a leadership role in the chamber.

"When I left, interest was dropping off," Slaten said. "Part of the reason was that six people had pumped everything they had into the chamber, and you couldn't find any new blood to take over. It takes a lot of work. After a few years as president or treasurer, you just want to hand it over to somebody."

Now, two Atwater residents are trying to revive the Atwater Chamber of Commerce. Bill Hart and Barbara Lass say they hope to harness the enthusiasm of new business people and convince older merchants that there is economic strength in organizing.

They have established a track record in the community, successfully lobbying City Hall for funds to build an Atwater library, now in its final design stage. They say they don't want to change Atwater, just to enhance its village atmosphere.

"I'll be going out to meet the merchants and recruit members," said Hart, who, with Lass, owns a tree service. "I want to tell them that we're there to get them business. We want to get the local people to come in, let them know what's there, and also bring in commuters.

"We've gone through an awkward stage. A previous generation did well in Atwater and then they let it fade. Now it's time for a new generation."

Third Generation at Store

One of the new generation of Atwater merchants is Ron Beach, 28, who has taken over the 45-year-old Beach's market, started by his grandfather. After learning the business, starting as a box boy, Beach earned a degree in business from Brigham Young University and returned to the family store. His grandfather is now his landlord.

"I took the store over at the beginning of the year and formed my own corporation," Beach said. "My grandfather is going to be 80 but he's still the boss and the concepts he used I'm sticking to.

"This store has a homey feel. A lot of customers have been shopping here since the '40s. There have been changes, but basically we want to give good service, good prices and be fair."

The building will have to be updated, Beach said, not only for aesthetic purposes but because, like many of Atwater's older structures, it does not comply with modern earthquake-safety codes.

Looking for Urban Aid

"We're talking about six-digit numbers for an old building," Beach said of the cost for structural improvements. "Things have really changed in the last five years, costs have gone out of sight. I'll be attempting to look at some type of urban aid. If the chamber gets together, maybe we stand a better chance."

Up the street from Beach's, Randy Kramer's shop, The Racket Doctor, draws customers from as far away as San Diego and Santa Barbara. Kramer, 37, grew up in Atwater. He worked for several years at the Griffith Park tennis shop, then returned to Atwater and bought and remodeled his property.

"As a young person I remember the area as thriving, merchants were established and there was a lot of foot traffic," Kramer said. "Then people started moving away. Things bottomed out, and I believe they are back on the revival. Retail in general, the free-standing stores, have been affected by the malls. I'm in favor of a chamber to get better representation."

Another new merchant is Alain Derick. His imported Belgian chocolate store, Mon Tresor, services restaurants and hotels throughout Southern California.

'Area Is Marvelous'

Derick's shop is one of a handful of newly remodeled storefronts. He feels that Atwater's retail area suffers only from a want of new paint and signs. The heavy traffic, freeway access and relatively low commercial rents made the community quite attractive when he came to the United States 2 1/2 years ago.

"We have revived the area a bit, painted the front of the store," Derick said. "We think the area is marvelous."

But it is Derick's landlord, Jeff Gardner, who perhaps best exemplifies Atwater's new breed of merchant. The 30-year-old photographer, with aid from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, bought and converted the former Atwater Post Office, next door to Mon Tresor, into a cavernous photography studio.

" Everybody in the world is crowding into the Westside," Gardner said. "Go down the streets of West Hollywood and you'll see the same tree-lined streets, the same style of houses, except maybe there are a couple of Mercedes in the driveway and the houses cost $300,000 instead of $120,000. This is a working-class area. It's not trendy, but it's stable. Atwater is still undiscovered."

Inexpensive Rents

Rents ranging from 50 cents to $1 a square foot attracted him to Atwater in 1979 and will likely draw others, Gardner said.

"It's cheaper than renting an apartment," Gardner said. "Glendale Boulevard turns into Brand Boulevard in Glendale, but try to rent something there and it's outrageous. You come here, a half-mile away, and the rents are cheap."

Madelyn Kinney's support for a new chamber parallels that of many other longtime residents who would like to see Atwater upgraded but left essentially unchanged in its small-town character. She understands that owners of many of Atwater's mom-and-pop stores can seldom afford to take time away from their shops, especially to attend meetings and volunteer for a Chamber of Commerce.

Trying to Boost Pride

"If you have a one-man shop, how can you close your shop?" Kinney said. "But what we are trying to do is to create a deeper interest, more pride in the boulevard. The more pride in the business area, the better profits you are going to make. But this will all take time."

For Adolphe Miller, owner of Miller's Shoes for 22 years, no organization will help him do what he says he does best--produce a good product at the best price.

"I'm aloof to what goes on," Miller said. "All my business is from word of mouth. I sink or swim according to my own abilities. My business? We don't want any more, and we don't want any less."

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