Waiting for relatives to emerge from a gleaming Universal CityWalk gift shop, tourist Maryanna Watson of Houston went over her one-week Los Angeles itinerary:
Disneyland. Westwood Village. Knott’s Berry Farm. Marilyn Monroe’s grave. Stars’ homes in Beverly Hills and Brentwood.
But would she see the Watts Towers or the murals of East Los Angeles, hear live jazz in Leimert Park or stop for lunch in Koreatown?
“No, not at all,” said the 50-something grandmother, shaking her head. “The pictures I have of these neighborhoods are of gangs and crime and slums. I mean, is there another side?”
Until recently, the culturally rich “other side” of Los Angeles--including East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles and Koreatown--has been largely ignored by the local tourism industry, which has traditionally presented the city as a palm-lined playground for the rich and famous, dotted with theme parks and populated by suntanned blondes.
But a coalition of more than 30 labor leaders, community activists, business owners and local artists, known as the Tourism Industry Development Council, is working to change that.
The nonprofit, privately funded coalition came together with seed money from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union shortly after the 1992 riots, when the city’s tourism industry plunged into a two-year slump as images of burning buildings obscured prospective visitors’ notions of fun in the sun.
The coalition has challenged the local tourism industry to undo some of the damage to the city’s image by promoting the sights, sounds and tastes in the urban neighborhoods of the “real” Los Angeles. Such a move, the group says, could dispel negative stereotypes while drawing some of the tourist money that flows into Los Angeles--$9.5 billion last year--into communities that have until now missed out on much of the action.
“It’s much better and safer for [tourists] to see the whole picture, negative and positive,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, the group’s executive director.
So far, the coalition has had some success. Last summer, it presented a series of guided tours during the World Cup soccer finals, taking foreign and American journalists through East and South Los Angeles, Koreatown, Pico-Union and Hollywood to see the sights and learn about each neighborhood’s historical and cultural identity.
The tours caught the attention of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, once criticized by the coalition for ignoring inner-city attractions in its tourist literature. Bureau officials granted the coalition $12,000 to produce a 15-minute video compiled from footage shot during the tours.
Titled “On Any Day,” the video was released last spring and is being distributed by the bureau to tour operators and convention planners worldwide.
A major part of East Los Angeles’ tourism potential involves the area’s myriad rainbow-hued murals, which cover everything from the walls of busy stores along historic Brooklyn Avenue--once home to the city’s first Jewish community--to the Estrada Courts housing project.
About a mile away, a vividly chaotic shopping experience unfolds at El Mercadito, a bustling, indoor bazaar where shoppers can browse for knickknacks and vaquero --or cowboy--gear and sip a cold glass of jamaica , a punch made from hibiscus flowers.
Central Avenue in South Los Angeles represents an important slice of Los Angeles history. Once the center of the city’s African American community and, from the 1930s to the 1950s home to a thriving jazz scene, the Central Avenue strip is anchored by the landmark Dunbar Hotel, the city’s first hotel constructed by and for African Americans, built in 1928. Restored to its former glory, it soon will house a museum showcasing the history of black Los Angeles.
“Different communities have things that make them unique, and ours is history,” said Anthony Scott, president of the Dunbar Economic Development Corp., which restored the hotel. The corporation is buying and renovating other historic but run-down Central Avenue structures.
Although Koreatown already attracts a large number of Korean tourists, Bong Hwan Kim, director of the Korean Youth and Community Center, said the area is seldom frequented by other out-of-town visitors.
“It’s critical that the mainstream travel industry understand that one of the most interesting things about Los Angeles is its diversity,” Kim said. “I think some tourists would really enjoy seeing the largest Korean community outside of Korea.”
A few small tour companies and historical preservation groups such as Black L.A. Tours and the Los Angeles Conservancy already take visitors to see inner-city sights and points of interest, but they cater primarily to students and special interest groups.
The coalition hopes to ensure that the tourist money that finds its way into the central city remain there, nurturing local businesses and benefiting tourism industry employees who live there.
Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ Union, said that about 80% of the union’s 9,000 members live in the central city neighborhoods often bypassed by the tourist trade.
“These communities have traditionally been excluded from the dollars that come into the city through tourism and conventions, so small businesses in these neighborhoods have not been reinforced or helped in any way,” she said.
Convention and Visitors Bureau Vice President Michael Collins, who for the last two years has been involved in the production of a series of guidebooks on the Latino, African American and Asian American cultures in the city--said tourism in central Los Angeles is a sure bet with the right marketing push.
“Tourists are always interested in something new,” Collins said. “If tourists can come here and explore a new destination, they have all the more reason to come.”