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The Mariachi Beat : Entertainment: For years, musicians have staked out a Boyle Heights corner, waiting for jobs. To encourage the tradition, city officials want to spruce up the intersection and drive out crime.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“This corner is like my home,” Sergio Mendez said proudly one recent night as he strummed his guitar at a gritty Boyle Heights intersection.

For the past decade, Mendez has been one of the regulars at the spot where 1st Street and Boyle Avenue meet--the main square of Los Angeles’ mariachis and the prime place where party planners throughout the city come to hire a band.

In a ritual borrowed from Mexico City’s famed Plaza Garibaldi, free-lance mariachis such as Mendez come out of nearby residences at dusk carrying their guitars, trumpets, accordions and giant bass guitars. Dressed in their trademark charro jackets, they take up positions outside the doughnut shop at La Boyle, as the intersection is known, and wait through the night for a chance to serenade for hire.

“It’s like a market,” one band member says, “and mariachis are for sale.”

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But the mariachis who have gathered here for more than 50 years now share the spot with transients, drug dealers and prostitutes. The corner is so crime-ridden that many customers no longer venture near and the mariachis themselves have learned to hit the pavement when gunfire rings out.

“The corner is not the same,” said one musician who remembers better days.

In an attempt to preserve a Los Angeles tradition, city officials are pushing a plan that would redevelop the corner with fake cobblestones and a ceremonial kiosk and give it a name that honors the performers who gather there--"Mariachi Plaza.”

“It’s like a big dream for me,” said Frank Villalobos, a landscape architect with Barrio Planners, an Eastside planning group involved in the project. “It’s exciting to see the Mexican culture highlighted. This is not the best corner in the world but it is the corner. It’s a place where mariachis have naturally gathered.”

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The plan, tentatively approved by the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday, will close off a portion of the street to traffic and create a triangular plaza. Around the kiosk, which is a gift from the governor of Jalisco, Mexico, and will double as a community center, will be antique fixtures, street lamps and benches. The total price tag is estimated at $500,000 to $1 million.

The corner is also scheduled to become a subway stop on the Metro Red Line extension, prompting some to envision the corner as a tourist attraction one day, the Eastside’s version of the Watts Towers.

A ceremonial groundbreaking will take place at the city’s third annual Mariachi Festival on Nov. 21--the day honoring Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Construction will begin in January and should be completed by the end of next year, officials said.

Not everyone believes the planned face lift will alter the urban realities.

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“We don’t need a plaza,” said Robert Chavez, who has lived at the corner for 11 years and can see the mariachis from his front porch. “We need more police.”

Police acknowledge the problems but say they are working with city officials to improve the area.

“There is no question that that corner has one of the highest crime incident rates in the city of Los Angeles,” said Capt. Bob Medina, area commander of the Police Department’s Hollenbeck Division. “It’s known throughout the city for mariachis and for drugs. But I really believe it can be cleaned up.”

The project has won enthusiastic support from those who say mariachi music is a tradition that needs to be preserved.

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“L.A. competes with Mexico City and Guadalajara for the best mariachi players,” said UCLA music professor Steve Loza, who has studied the city’s mariachi scene. “L.A. is one of the mariachi centers of the world.”

Mariachi music, with its emotional tales of Mexican culture and romance, was born in northeastern Mexico during the 1880s and later spread to Mexico City and Guadalajara. The word itself, some scholars say, is the diminutive form of the name Maria.

Los Angeles has produced Los Camperos, Mariachis Sol de Mexico and Los Galleros, mariachi groups that have earned reputations on both sides of the border. Los Camperos, led by Nati Cano, is a regular backup band for singer Linda Ronstadt.

At the dark corner in Boyle Heights, however, the mariachis toil in obscurity, waiting for a break.

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They vary widely in ability and price ($200 an hour for a six-member band is about average) and range from the scruffy to the impeccably dressed.

Adela Tazira, a Cal State L.A. student, cruised by the intersection last December to pick up a band for her sister’s 15th birthday celebration. The members she eventually selected were mediocre at best, she said, but the music is an essential part of any fiesta.

“Mariachi bands add spice to a celebration,” she said. “The music is very important culturally. It’s about our Mexican roots.”

Street of Music City officials want to redevelop a Boyle Heights corner and name it “Mariachi Plaza” in honor of the performers who gather there.

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