Topics / BUSINESS : Vibrant Street a Comfort to Newcomers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sam Joma, who owns a new electronic appliance shop on Pacific Boulevard, beamed as potential customers made their way along the crowded Huntington Park thoroughfare.

Across the way, an unlicensed street vendor nervously kicked her wooden crate filled with small fruit baskets out of sight until a police cruiser passed. A moment later she quickly sold two orders of watermelon and pineapple chunks for $1 each.

And a block or so down the boulevard, a teen-age boy hustled back and forth trying to peddle fake identification cards.

It is all part of what is accepted, or at least expected, by the thousands of shoppers, merchants, retirees, teen-agers, criminals, panhandlers and others who spend time each day on thriving Pacific Boulevard.

To outsiders, Pacific Boulevard may be most familiar as the place that became unruly after thousands jammed the strip in June to celebrate Mexico's advancement in the World Cup. But to local residents, the boulevard is a vital commercial district with about 400 businesses that account for at least one-third of the annual $3 million in sales tax revenue. It has emerged in recent years as a place that Latino newcomers throughout the region find both lively and comforting.

"That boulevard keeps this city alive," said Mayor Richard V. Loya. "It really does bring in a lot of people."

And it is a strip still in transition from the largely white, blue-collar area it had been for so many years after Huntington Park was incorporated in the early 1900s. As Latinos poured into the area in recent years looking for better lives, businesses began to tailor themselves to the new clientele.

The city's population is easily 95% Latino, officials say. The 1990 U.S. Census counted more than 56,000 residents in Huntington Park, but local officials say that factoring in recent arrivals, illegal residents and others missed by the count raises the total estimated population to 75,000.

For many, the success of Pacific Boulevard registers in cash what many other largely Latino communities nationwide can calculate only as potential buying power. The boulevard is vibrant even as the community struggles with common urban ills such as low income and education levels and crime.

So, those along the boulevard say, the widespread attention generated when the World Cup soccer celebration became too rowdy and led to the temporary closing of the strip by city officials was misleading.

Donald L. Jeffers, the city's chief administrative officer, said the most recent quarterly figures available showed that retail sales on the strip increased about 7% or 8% early this year compared to the same period in 1993.

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