Today's Topic

Among the most visible changes in American life over the last 30 years is the decline of that most American of institutions: Main Street.

In cities throughout the country, streets formerly lined by mom-and-pop retail stores, drugstores and soda fountains, clothing shops and movie theaters have been transformed into depressing collages of boarded and abandoned buildings, or razed altogether.

In Southern California, however, there are urban street-shopping centers--Larchmont Village, Leimert Park and Studio City, to name a few--that are vital and drawing customers who otherwise might have flocked to suburban shopping malls.

No where is that revitalization more visible than at the Uptown shopping district in Whittier, which was devastated by a 1987 earthquake. In today's Favorite Places, Whittier resident Kathryn Sampson talks about the need for and benefits of accessible neighborhood shopping.

The need for accessible neighborhood shopping in urban areas is urgent, but economic and safety issues and lack of space create what many retailers fear is an unsuitable environment for shoppers.

"There is a critical shortage of good shopping for inner-city residents," says Richard Peiser, associate professor of urban and regional planning at USC. "I believe there's hope but it's an uphill battle."

Persuading large chain stores to open smaller operations in central cities is key to revitalizing neighborhoods, say experts. "Major grocery stores need a minimum of five acres to build," says Peiser. "Most city sites are a lot smaller and smaller stores are typically less efficient. Yet, the largest chain store in Germany operates smaller stores and they are demonstrating that it can be done successfully."

But Linda Griego, director of RLA, formerly Rebuild LA, believes it is possible to develop urban shopping areas that create community without mall-style anchor and chain stores.

"Santa Ana has the perfect example of an urban shopping area that works," Griego says. "It caters very much to that community. If you walk down those six or seven blocks, you won't see any name-brand shops. There will be an ice-cream shop but it won't be Baskin Robbins. There will be a print shop but it won't be a Kinko's.

"The real key to making these urban shopping areas work is catering to the marketing needs of the consumer who lives there," says Griego.

High on this list for many store owners is the need to create a sense of identity for the community. "Leimert Park is the last all-black business area in Los Angeles," says Brian Breye, owner of the store Museum in Black. "We're teaching youngsters, other African-Americans, to take pride in what they own."

The value of his store and others like his, says Breye, was brought home in the disturbances after the first Rodney King trial: "Members of the community thought my building was going to catch on fire and they removed over 10,000 items from my store across the street. Nothing was stolen . . . and (the neighbors) fed us for five days."

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