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‘People are rediscovering us. . . . We’re doing quite well.’

Whittier Boulevard, East Los Angeles’ major business district, is making a comeback.

Merchants along the one-mile stretch of the boulevard between Eastern Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard are wearing smiles these days because of brisker business during the holidays. Many of them reported increases in receipts ranging from 6% to 14% over last year.

“People are rediscovering us,” said Leon Vargas, who manages a medical center on the boulevard. “We’re doing quite well.”

That wasn’t always the case.

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For the better part of two decades, things went steadily downhill along Whittier Boulevard.

The boulevard had become popular with Latino teen-agers and others who descended on the street in souped-up cars to cruise. Eventually it became one of Southern California’s hottest meccas for weekend night cruising.

But the cruising also attracted violence. Shootings, assaults, some homicides and clogged streets eventually forced authorities to enforce curfew laws.

By 1968, sheriff’s deputies organized sweeps against drugs and local street gangs and eventually closed the boulevard to traffic on weekend nights.

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Business declined in the face of continuing problems.

Then there was the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 29, 1970.

More than 20,000 Latinos marched on the street to protest U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and to decry the fact that so many Latinos and other minorities were being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.

The protest erupted in a riot. Stores were looted, fires set. More than 40 people were injured and dozens were arrested. One person was killed. He was Ruben Salazar, a Times columnist and news director at KMEX-TV. He died while sitting inside a bar, having a beer with three friends. He was struck by a tear-gas projectile fired by a sheriff’s deputy who believed that a “man with a gun” was inside the bar.

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The death was ruled accidental. The street continued to deteriorate.

$5 Million to Start

But early in this decade, a handful of business people formed the Whittier Boulevard Merchants Assn. and, armed with $5 million from state and local agencies, set out to turn things around.

The group spearheaded an improvement program that widened the street, added a Latino “Walk of Fame,” installed two 65-foot-high arches over the boulevard and spruced up the storefronts.

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They also successfully pushed for better law enforcement; the crime rate began dropping.

Sheriff’s deputies quietly reopened the street to weekend night traffic in 1986.

And, strangely, the cruisers have not come back.

“Maybe they went somewhere else,” said Vargas, president of the merchants’ group. “When I opened 2 1/2 years ago, I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe this. I’m opening a business on a street that I used to cruise.’

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“People are no longer afraid to come here.”


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