Nuts, Bolts of Hardware Store Hinges on Stability

Times Staff Writer

Having survived an earthquake that took the second story, a riot in which buildings all around were burned and four decades of declining neighborhood fortunes, Bill Greenberg said he can't find a good reason to leave.

Strolling outside his South-Central Los Angeles hardware store, Greenberg said that when the gangs mar his building with graffiti, he paints it over.

When the hookers who work out of a nearby building crowd around, he just says no.

He barely acknowledges the presence of the drug dealers and users congregating on a lot around the corner.

"It's live and let live," Greenberg said of the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where he was born and continues to earn his livelihood.

Greenberg Hardware, which has been in business at 5010 S. Central Ave. for more than 60 years, has become a landmark of sorts, an island of stability in the immediate neighborhood which has been buffeted by blight.

The Central Avenue commercial strip in Greenberg's neighborhood is dotted with empty lots, where businesses burned in the Watts riots more than 20 years ago have never been rebuilt. By one rough count, churches outnumber liquor stores. After three decades when the area was overwhelmingly black, today it is roughly half Latino. About the only building that has gone up near Greenberg's store in recent years is a 118-unit high-rise for seniors and disabled.

Dim Prospects

While officials of local housing and neighborhood development agencies are hopeful of a turnabout, some local residents see only dim prospects for revitalization.

The Rev. Edward V. Hill, pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, says frankly that the area is economically depressed and plagued by crime, particularly drug dealing at several "hot spot" street corners.

"People out of the neighborhood know about these corners. You see Mercedes and Lincolns pull up. People make their purchase and head out of the community," Hill said.

A police officer on the beat, Andrew Thedford, echoes Hill's view. "There's only about 5% of bad folks. A majority of the community are really nice people. It's just that small percentage making it rough for everybody."

Yet Greenberg has never been mugged, never robbed. There have been burglaries at his store near 50th Street, but he points out that there's a limit to how much hardware anyone can profitably carry out through a hole in the wall.

"People say, 'How can you work in an area like that?' When you're down here, there is no fear," said Greenberg, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Greenberg Hardware is a small cavern, crossed with rows of shelves holding the imperatives of mechanized living. There are no best sellers in this business, but there are rhythms: sales of window glass pick up during the approach of the rainy season, screens move quickly as the summer comes on.

At the counter is Earnestine Perryman, a longtime employee answering the questions of half a dozen customers and ringing up sales. In the cool at the rear, Simeon Herrera, who has worked for Greenberg for six months, is glazing a window.

Started in 1926

Back in the small office, sometimes interrupted by his brother and partner, Arthur, Greenberg, 58, talks about his family business.

His father put up the building in 1926 and began dealing in used furniture. When a boxcar load of paint destined for a buyer who went bankrupt appeared at a good price, Greenberg branched out.

"Dad's was like an old general store," Greenberg said. "People would drop by. He even put couches in here so people could sit around and talk."

He remembers a time when this was "a solid Jewish neighborhood." Today, on the doorpost of just about every house, he said, you can still discern, "under about 15 layers of paint," the small container bearing mezuzot, verses from Deuteronomy.

By the time of the 1965 Watts riots, the sons had taken over. The store was saved by the three upstairs tenants, who painted a "Blood Brother" sign on the front.

It was after National Guard patrols left the area that Greenberg, a Jew, said he experienced his first--and only--instance of anti-Semitism. Black power groups roamed the streets, indicating targeted merchants by placing "Burn, Baby Burn" signs on the outside. Businesses without such signs, predominantly Jewish-owned, were marked for a destruction that, in Greenberg's case, never came.

But while he has survived and modestly thrived amid the man-made perils, earthquakes have almost done him in. The Long Beach earthquake of 1933 knocked the facing off the store and destroyed the homestead in back. The 1971 Sylmar quake made a jumble of the second floor, wiping out three apartments.

On the street, walking along Central one day recently, Greenberg was greeted by half a dozen acquaintances, from the clerk at Fred's Liquors to Gelda Tisdale at Thompson's New & Used Furniture down the street.

In a friendly chat, Tisdale, whose shop contains little that's new and lots more than furniture, shares her winning formula for beating the graffiti artists: Don't wait to paint it over, do it right away. This discourages them, she said.

Surviving in the neighborhood seems to rest, in part, on collections of such wisdom. Greenberg points to a public telephone he allowed to be installed near his store last year. Mindful that it could turn into an attraction for drug dealers, he insisted it be rigged so that no incoming calls can be received.

The Greenberg brothers are known as generous contributors to community causes, such as housing, the merchants association and church fund-raisers. A local housing official, Dorothy Cole, whose three sons worked part-time at the hardware store, called the Greenbergs "one of the strengths of the neighborhood."

Greenberg has three grown children and lives with his wife, a nurse, in Tarzana. He was graduated from UCLA and spent four years as an accountant, "hating it" all the while, and eventually settled in at the family business. There are no regrets.

"There's just a certain atmosphere in the ghetto. You go into a restaurant, everybody's talking and joking, everybody's loose, everybody's being himself. In the Valley, it's completely different," Greenberg said.

As Greenberg Hardware heads toward its 63rd year, the end of the neighborhood tradition is definitely in sight. None of the brothers' children are interested in carrying on.

It's hard to tell when Greenberg's smile begins and ends, but he smiles broadly when he speaks of the neighborhood:

"I'm happy with the people here. You notice how relaxed it is in the store. There's always a joke going around and people are friendly."

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