Rehabilitation of sleepy shopping district in Norwalk turns things around front to back--literally.

Times Staff Writer

The story of Norwalk's Front Street shopping district is the usual tale of small-town eminence chipped and faded to a memory by the onslaught of suburbia. Once the brick-laced, commercial backbone of the farming community that was old Norwalk, the row of locally owned shops became a bypassed finger of contemporary, neon-drenched Norwalk.

Now Front Street has been nudged into the present by a federally funded rehabilitation program that has literally turned the block around in the hope of metaphorically turning it around. The stores no longer front slumbering Front Street with its old-fashioned diagonal parking and railroad right of way; they face a large, landscaped parking lot on busy Firestone Boulevard, where a towering sign announces the area is Front Street Plaza.

The city's long-forgotten downtown has been reincarnated as a shopping center with blue awnings, some tasteful neon and A-shaped wooden arches.

"I think this project is great," said Frank Riggio, the balding butcher with an eye patch who has been slicing up pieces of meat in Wong's Food Market on Front Street since its glory days four decades ago. "It's taken a run-down, beat-up area and turned it into something you won't be ashamed of."

"Progress," Riggio mused, resting his ham-sized, tattooed arms on his white meat case. "You know, you got to stay abreast of the times or they'll take off and leave you."

The city spent more than a year and $1.5 million of federal money from the Community Development Block Grant program cleaning up the block's exterior, expanding and improving parking, and reorienting the buildings, most of which date to the 1920s. As Frank Farag, owner of the block's Newberry Printing shop put it, "The back door became the front door."

The idea, city Planning and Development Director Don Rouly explained, was to modernize a historic piece of Norwalk that had become "functionally obsolete," while preserving the buildings and their architectural character.

"We thought it was a real key block within our community," Rouly said. The block's former rear parking on Firestone Boulevard, one of the city's main commercial strips, was fenced off and difficult to reach. Haphazard additions cluttered back walls. Over the years, the storefronts, had, in Riggio's words, become "all garbaged up with old signs."

The city bought two corner parcels at Firestone and Clarkdale Avenue behind the shops, tore down a garage and some deteriorating buildings, and converted the areas into additional parking. Back-wall tin sheds were razed, windows and doors were replaced, and the hodgepodge of store signs on Front Street was cleared away, leaving that side of the buildings looking much as it did decades ago.

"What you see out there on Front Street is the way it was when I came to work here," Riggio said approvingly. He started at Wong's nearly 40 years ago and shares part-interest in the business and several other Front Street buildings owned by Lowell Wong, who inherited the market from his father.

Other Front Street shopkeepers are equally enthusiastic about the rejuvenation project, which also has offered store owners low-interest loans for interior renovations. "Everything they did good," Farag said.

"It was fantastic," proclaimed Richard Sneed of Norwalk Records. "I just got a little unexpected trick played on me."

Just a few months after his corner building--a former bank that is the block's architectural grand dame--was fixed up, last October's earthquake struck, cracking walls and cornices. Sneed has since used the shop for storage, but he says it needs more than $100,000 worth of repairs before he can move back. He has applied for a federal Small Business Administration earthquake loan.

Although members of the Norwalk Historical Commission say the city project has improved the block, when pressed, some concede reservations about the contemporary touches. "I was really surprised when I saw what they were doing, that they modernized it so," commission Chairman Arwilda Houston said.

"Nobody does things the way I would," David Settle, commission secretary, commented, confessing that he would have been happier if the shops had not turned their backs on Front Street. Still, Settle says that even a backward Front Street district is better than no Front Street district. "It's several steps above condominiums or a mini-mall."

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