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‘Little India’ : Ethnicity: A commercial strip in Artesia has evolved into a mecca for the Asian Indian culture. But the influx has drawn complaints in the community.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the Artesia City Council ever relents, if businessmen such as Dhanesh Bhindi and Dilip Shah ever win the day, if Caltrans puts up a sign on the Artesia Freeway saying “Little India--Next Exit,” will someone please track down Mr. Lahoti and invite him to the ceremony?

Indian emigres in Southern California once had few places to call their own. Hindus and Sikhs yearning for a taste of home had to shop in Middle Eastern and Armenian groceries in Hollywood in hopes of finding the spices, seeds and lentils so important in Indian cuisine. Immigrants such as political activist Rajen Anand, a professor at Cal State Long Beach, fondly recall when, about 20 years ago, word of mouth led them to the tiny grocery Mr. Lahoti operated out of his garage at his Artesia home.

Lahoti has moved on, but his legacy flourishes. Artesia’s Pioneer Boulevard today features seven Indian grocery stores, as well as clothiers selling vibrant saris, an array of Indian restaurants and sweet shops, a new branch of the State Bank of India, and a dozen jewelers who think of 14-carat gold as cheap and tacky.

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Then there are the music and video stores featuring products in the various languages and dialects of the subcontinent. “We now carry Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam movies,” says a sign at Melody Makers.

For the 160,000 Asian Indians who live in California--including about 60,000 in Los Angeles and Orange counties--these few blocks of Pioneer are a surrogate Bombay. Over the last 10 years the once deteriorating commercial strip has evolved into the largest concentration of Indian-oriented businesses west of Chicago, drawing customers from as far as San Diego and Phoenix for a day of shopping.

Someday soon, jeweler Bhindi predicts, the rest of Southern California will see that “Little India” merits the official, no-quotation-marks-needed status of such ethnic centers as Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Koreatown.

Not that everybody in this old dairy town is happy about the attempt to promote an Indian identity in a community that has attracted waves of immigration from many countries.

“The community as a whole is not in favor of it,” said Hank Gray, manager of the Artesia Chamber of Commerce. “It makes the hair stand on people’s necks.”

Ethnic Indians own about 80 of the 900 businesses in the 1.6-square-mile city, including more than 50 concentrated along Pioneer. Other businesses, Gray says, are owned by people with roots in Latin America, Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. The community also includes a number of second- and third-generation descendants of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants who worked in what was then known as Dairy Valley.

The owner of Portizal Bakery typically answers his phone in Portuguese, switching to English if need be.

“We never dreamed of changing this to a little Portuguese city,” said John Garcia. “This is the United States of America. You should be very proud of your traditions, your roots, but . . . “

At times it seems as if Pioneer functions as two Main Streets: One is composed of thriving businesses catering to the Indian culture that draw only a fraction of their customers from the wider community. Then there is everybody else, struggling to make a buck and frustrated that few Indians patronize their stores.

Social divisions are often attributed to differences in perspective. Some things, it seems, are lost in the translation. Small discourtesies have led Garcia and furniture store owner Jack Pereira to complain of “arrogance” among some Indians.

Pereira, who routinely gives balloons to customers’ children, sourly recalls the man who walked into his store and brusquely declared: “I need balloons for my children"--without so much as an excuse me, do you mind, or a thank you.

Some Indian merchants suggest that critics may be jealous of their prosperity. Anand, a naturalized U.S. citizen who left India 30 years ago, perceives undercurrents of ethnocentrism in friction in Artesia and nearby Norwalk, whose City Council recently voted against permitting a Hindu temple on the grounds that it would increase traffic congestion.

But at the same time, Anand says, Indians familiar with the hierarchical ways of their homeland need to adjust to more egalitarian American ideals. Indians who are able to immigrate, he said, tend to be well-educated, affluent and status conscious. Rather than assimilate, they become sheltered by their prosperity, he said.

The community’s affluence, and a continued flow of immigration, are prime reasons why Indian merchants believe that their business district will continue to expand. Census figures show that the Indian population in Los Angeles County increased from 18,562 in 1980 to 42,086 by 1990. But when “Little India” will lose its quotation marks is hard to say.

Last year, when members of the Indian community approached state officials about placing a “Little India” sign on the freeway that feeds this stretch of Pioneer, Artesia officials reacted quickly and forcefully. City officials issued a special edition of the community newsletter, The Artesian, emphasizing that Caltrans requires approval by local elected officials for such signs. “In fact, this issue has never been placed before the City Council--nor will it be,” the newsletter declared.

Nor will it be? Such heavy-handed, undemocratic language offended many Indians. Things did not improve when a reporter for an Indian community newspaper asked then-Mayor Ron Oliver a few questions.

Oliver, who had frequented his share of ribbon cuttings at Indian businesses, was quoted: “This is Artesia and not India. If you don’t like our decision, please pack up and leave this city and move to some other place or go back to India. Be my guest.”

Oliver was later quoted elsewhere offering apologies and saying that his remarks were taken out of context. “I hope it never gets brought up again,” he said recently, “so there won’t be any more hard feelings.”

Still, it seems certain that neither the Indian community, the friction or the controversy will just up and leave. What is happening now, Anand says, dates its roots to the mid-1960s, when changes in immigration laws in the United States and India opened a channel that has since carried a steady flow of immigrants.

Pioneer--a name with a decidedly Western ring--became a center of Indian culture not so much because it is in Artesia, but because Artesia is surrounded on three sides by the city of Cerritos. Several Indians who immigrated long ago settled in that newer, more affluent suburb with a large Asian population; friends and relatives who came later did likewise.

While Lahoti’s grocery may have been the first Indian business in town, East-West Appliance was the first on Pioneer. Contraptions such as blenders and hair dryers are not usually thought of as cultural-specific, but East-West, unlike most appliance stores, sold 220-volt models to Indian tourists and local folks buying gifts for folks back home. In American households, 110 volts is standard.

Once a cultural island, the humble-looking shop is now surrounded by Babu Patel’s sari boutique, Dilip Shah’s grocery, a restaurant called Tandoori and the Bhindi brothers’ two jewelry stores.

Across the street stands the new $3.5-million House of Bhindi shopping plaza. The Bhindi brothers’ newest jewelry store is a showcase of Indian opulence, featuring a polished granite floor (imported from the subcontinent, naturally) and a treasure trove of gold. Like Middle Eastern cultures, Indians prefer the 22-carat variety. The soft metal is worked by hand into ornate designs appointed with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires.

Dhanesh Bhindi, 34, is a member of the Indian and Artesia chambers of commerce who prospered after relocating from Vancouver in 1984. The Bhindis have also opened stores in San Francisco and New York, billing their business as the nation’s largest manufacturers and retailers of 22-carat gold and diamond jewelry.

Dhanesh agrees with Anand that his fellow Indians need to become assimilated, become more involved in the wider community. “Many of them, they’re not doing their part of integrating.”

Much more will be needed to win the hearts and minds of the wider business community and the Artesia City Council--especially because relatively few Indians live in the city and therefore have little power at the polls.

But Bhindi seems confident that others will see that what’s good for “Little India” would be good for Artesia as a whole.

“It would become a tourist attraction,” said Bhindi.

Anand, the activist, said it is “inevitable” that they will someday get their sign.

“I have no doubt,” he said with a smile. “Someday the City Council will come to the business community and say: ‘OK. Now can we name this Little India?”


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