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Working the Edge of Fear : Peril Is Part of Life for Entrepreneurs in Westlake District

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of the mango peddlers are artists. At the corner of 7th and Alvarado streets, women from Central America impale the meaty fruit on a stick and, with deft strokes of a knife, transform it into a succulent yellow flower. “Mahn-go! Mahn-go! Mahn-go!” they call out.

A couple blocks away, 24-year-old Reyna Cruz displays no such flair. Cruz, who emigrated from Mexico City 2 1/2 years ago, slices the fruit into thin wedges and stuffs them in plastic bags. For $2, a customer gets a bag of mango spiced to taste with chili pepper, salt, a squeeze of lemon.

Cruz started selling fruit last month after her former boss sold his lunch truck. That was steady work, paying her $280 weekly with no days off, she says, enough to send $100 home each month. The fruit racket is tougher; she may net only $400 for the entire month. Every dollar is so precious that she resists the cholos --the gang members--who demand “rent” for using their sidewalk.

“I tell them, ‘Why should I when I don’t get anything from you?’ ” she explains in Spanish to Jose Legaspi, a business consultant snacking with a reporter. “I would like to work and not worry about the cholos. “

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Here along bustling Alvarado Street--suddenly just a quick subway ride from downtown’s gleaming towers of high finance and political power--the city’s enormous underground economy is hard at work. As Legaspi suggests, Cruz represents free enterprise in its rawest form: An entrepreneur who won’t be bullied, she simply weighs the benefits against the risks--and takes her chances.

Trepidation is part of the price of living and working in the Westlake district, an area just west of downtown that teems with immigrants and refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries. These neighborhoods, some suggest, are a modern incarnation of the immigrant enclaves of early 20th Century New York, with all their hopes, struggles, exploitation and danger. Arson and looting during last spring’s riots compounded the troubles for people here.

The underground economy operates at various levels, from hard-core criminals to the unlicensed street vendors to mom-and-pop merchants who do strictly cash business and don’t reveal everything to the tax man. “That’s an open secret. Everybody does it,” says Legaspi, whose company specializes in helping major firms tap the Latino market. And that is why commercial landlords can demand a rent per-square-foot that rivals the rent of suburban shopping malls, he adds.

With an estimated 85,000 people living within a one-mile radius of the Alvarado/MacArthur Park Red Line station, the density of this neighborhood rivals that of Manhattan. Cruz, for example, splits the $435 rent for a one-bedroom flat with three other young women.

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Poverty and the sheer number of potential victims have given rise to some of the city’s largest and most menacing street gangs. Statistics show that this area, patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division, is the city’s most violent precinct. The avenues and alleyways are bazaars of drug dealing, prostitution, thievery and extortion, residents and police say.

Delmy Ruiz says that when she came to this part of Los Angeles from El Salvador 11 years ago, she had found a more peaceful place to live. Ruiz, who now works as human services director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), had left her homeland after her father was murdered and her own life threatened by a government death squad.

Ruiz remembers when she felt comfortable walking home from the market at 10 p.m. Now she doesn’t like to venture outside after dark. “Now when I walk (from the office) to the parking lot--that’s one block--I don’t feel secure,” she said.

Then there’s the matter of filth. Flyers advertising everything from fortune tellers to bus rides to Guatemala wind up littering the streets, sidewalks and sewer system. “We pay fees to haul our trash away,” says Wayne Panfil, owner of the old Westlake Discount Store, now better known as El Piojito-- Spanish for the flea.

Meanwhile, the homeless use the alleys as toilets.

“The stench back there is so bad we have to wash it out every day,” Panfil says. “Then the Water and Power (Department) got after us because we were using too much water. It was ridiculous.”

The neighborhood’s decline is reflected at MacArthur Park, the once-beautiful urban oasis that in the mid-1960s inspired songwriter Jimmy Webb to pen his hallucinogenic pop classic: MacArthur Park is melting in the dark, its sweet green icing flowing down . . .

In the pop culture of today, MacArthur Park and its environs play a dispiriting role in the controversial film “Falling Down.” This is the vicinity where the anti-hero-gone-bonkers played by Michael Douglas pummels extortion-minded street toughs, spurns an obnoxious panhandler, survives a drive-by shooting that leaves innocent bystanders dying and wounded, and finally arms himself with an arsenal salvaged from the gangbangers’ wrecked car.

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Even Metro Rail construction intrudes on the anti-hero’s psyche. But to most people who live in this neighborhood, the first leg of the Red Line seems to be a $1.4-billion irrelevance. Although mavens of Los Angeles’ landscape may get worked up over the pros and cons of the subway--and though city planners promise that its impact will grow in time--Ruiz and many others are far more concerned with such matters as whether the treaty that recently ended El Salvador’s civil war will hold.

People here rely chiefly on the bus system. As far as the subway is concerned, the work under construction makes a bigger impact than the work that has been completed.

To ascend the escalator at Alvarado is to see a MacArthur Park that seems to be de-constructing in the daylight. The air tastes of dust blowing off the park’s dry lake bed, drained to serve as a staging area for extending the Red Line tunnel westward. Immigrant families who crowd the playground on the park’s north side and senior citizens who pass their days on benches blend with the homeless and the addicted.

Down the street, a scruffy man in need of a bath leans against a wall. “What do you need?” he whispers.

His name, he says, is Thomas. He is 47 years old, homeless and has lived in and around MacArthur Park for six years, he says. “I don’t sell anything. I just take customers to the person who sells.”

Sometimes the buyer slips Thomas some money, sometimes the dealer gives him a taste. “I’m a coke fiend,” he explains. “I’ve tried (to quit) but it hasn’t worked, so I’ve accepted it.”

The Metro Rail station puzzles him. “It wasn’t too smart,” he says. “I can’t understand why they put it here in the biggest dope neighborhood in L.A.”

To Thomas and other skeptics, transit officials, city planners and various business interests suggest that the subway is a key ingredient toward reversing the neighborhood’s decline. It’s full impact, they say, won’t be seen for years.

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Plans for the undeveloped space above the Metro Rail station call for a kind of modern, Central American marketplace anchored by a mercado-- a large grocery. Just as the underground station’s murals celebrate Latino culture, the development plans would enhance the community as a distinct ethnic enclave, not unlike Chinatown or Koreatown.

There is also a plan to create “Plazas de Las Americas” at MacArthur Park--a series of plazas representing various Latin American countries in celebration of diverse cultures. Eduardo Reyes, a planning aide to City Councilman Mike Hernandez, also speaks hopefully of finding space for a soccer field to provide much-needed recreation options for neighborhood youths.

And as the Red Line proceeds west, officials point out, it will bring more and more riders through this neighborhood from all directions. Today, downtown office workers mostly come here for lunch at Langer’s, the popular delicatessen that dates from the neighborhood’s middle-class heyday. As forbidding as the MacArthur Park area seems to many people now, Reyes and Legaspi suggest that someday Angelenos of every ethnicity will ascend the escalators and rediscover a place that is more beautiful than perilous.

To many, this seems like pie in the sky. But Legaspi is fond of noting that the El Pollo Loco chain opened its first U.S. outlet right here on Alvarado. Legaspi, who brokered that deal, said he is now hoping to find a suitable location for a major video emporium. It made him smile when Cruz, the mango peddler, said that sometimes she and her roommates splurge on a video.

Many business people underestimate the economic energy and potential of such a densely populated neighborhood where the vast majority of resourceful people want to make an honest living, Legaspi said. “I’ve seen instances of people start out vending on the street and now they have a store.”

He bridles at the arguments that portray immigrants who weaken the economy by straining such services as public health, welfare and education. To the contrary, Legaspi says, U.S. society gains from the immigrants’ hard work and low wages.

Such people are easy to find running their little shops beneath the high ceiling of the Westlake Swap Meet--in better days, the Westlake Theater. Elena Gomez, a 48-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, says she puts in 60-hour workweeks managing her gift shop--and another 25 hours as a nurse’s aide at White Memorial Hospital. Maria Eva Mejia, proprietor of a clothing store, said she was starting over.

Mejia’s 14-year-old daughter Maricel, a 10th-grader at Belmont High School, translates for her mother. The family’s saga includes the death of Maricel’s uncle, slain in El Salvador’s civil war in a case of mistaken identity. The Mejias family had been saving money and planning to return home even before the Salvadoran peace agreement, but then the riots came and wiped out the family’s finances. Loans from friends helped her mother start over. Maricel herself has lived in Los Angeles five years and says she wants to go home to El Salvador.

Delmy Ruiz, who had fled El Salvador fearing for her life, says she would like to return, if only she didn’t still worry about her enemies.

In the meantime, Ruiz plans to send the older of her two sons. He’s 12 years old. It’s an impressionable age, she explains, and with so many gangs around . . . well, El Salvador must be safer than Los Angeles.


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