Philip Johnson has lived on the north end of Gardena for 25 years and can recall the store he would run to as a child on errands for his mother.
The store was a Ralph's supermarket on Rosecrans and Van Ness avenues, but it closed about 10 years ago, Johnson said. An Alpha Beta was once on Rosecrans too. It shut earlier this year and still stands boarded up.
Today, one shopping center--Supreme Market on Western Avenue--lies within Gardena's boundaries north of Rosecrans, where African American and Latino residents make up 90% of some neighborhoods.
According to census data, the shopping center serves a population of about 15,000. By contrast, in southern Gardena, the ratio is one market for every 2,300 residents, most of whom are white or Asian.
Now, a newly formed group of activists is criticizing city officials as they move to bring another major chain to the south end, at Artesia Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
The city recently bought a vacant 10-acre site from Caltrans for $3.74 million. It plans to sell it for the same price to De Anza Properties of Sunnyvale, which will build a 64,000-square-foot Smith's Food and Drug Center.
The development could bring the city as much as $500,000 a year in sales tax, City Manager Kenneth W. Landau said. And, Landau added: "If we hadn't bought it, it would have gone to a private developer and we'd have no control over what development would be there."
But opponents, who call themselves the South Bay Open Space and Youth Recreation Committee, argue that the plan is an example of the economic "redlining" that, they say, appears to have gone on in Gardena for many years. Committee member Frank O'Brien said the area south of Redondo Beach Boulevard is particularly concentrated with market development--10 markets, or one for every 1,750 residents.
"We question the decision of the city to actively assist a private developer locate a new store in an area already well-served by markets when the north side entirely lacks these facilities," O'Brien said.
He has notified the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People about his group's discrimination concerns.
The apparent disparity in the number of markets on the two sides of town is not intentional, Landau said, but he agreed that the city's development plans are based on economics.
As city officials have aggressively encouraged development during the past nine years, they have often offered incentives such as sales tax rebates, he said. As a result, enough business has been attracted to recoup losses experienced in the 1980s, when four of the city's six card clubs--then a major source of revenue for Gardena--closed.
"Now we're one of the most financially secure cities because of the private/public partnership we've sought," Landau said.
He said city officials are working to revitalize northern Gardena, but they have found more willingness to invest in the south, where land is cheaper and less industrial.
"We've talked of trying to relocate other businesses from other cities," Landau said. "I personally have spent a lot more time trying to attract development in the area north of Rosecrans rather than in the south, but the price of land is so high in (the city's north) that it's not feasible for developers to come in."
However, opponents say the city is not doing enough to ensure that all citizens are represented with equal services.
So far, they point out, no public hearing on the Smith's development has been held, and O'Brien said repeated requests to meet with individual council members to discuss alternative sites have been refused.
Also, they say, a state-required Environmental Impact Report has not been done, even as grading has begun at the site on Artesia and Vermont.
Landau said the work is soil remediation. He added that public hearings on the report and the site plan will be held in about 90 days.
"Our intention is to do everything possible to have the Smith's food center at that site," he said.
When O'Brien's committee first objected to the new development, it was worried about harm to an adjacent natural area of rare willow wetland that is used by migratory birds.
But the committee's concerns go beyond the environment, O'Brien said.
"We're not using the issue of economic redlining as a means to achieve our environmental goal; we want to improve the city generally. We want to preserve open space and also make sure all parts of the community have access to all the services they need," he said.
O'Brien said the committee has been meeting with business and community leaders on the issue.
Johnson, the 25-year resident of the city, ran a mayoral campaign in the April city election criticizing the city for neglecting the north and doing business behind closed doors. He said he can understand the city's business rationale.
But he said he would like a development such as Smith's in the north because there are high-income earners in some neighborhoods who can support it. That they don't have it, he says, is an indication that something more than economics might be at work.
"It's something I've been trying to avoid for a long time, the racist picture," Johnson said. "But that's what it looks like."