SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Pacific Blvd. Beckons to Latinos : Shoppers Spark Revival of Huntington Park District

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodeo Drive, Melrose Avenue and the Third Street Promenade may have more renown, but for many Latinos, Pacific Boulevard is the place to shop.

Like those celebrated streets in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Pacific, in downtown Huntington Park, draws shoppers from across the region.

From as far as Riverside and Lancaster, Mexican American and Central American customers throng the 580 shops along a mile-long stretch of Pacific, which becomes Long Beach Boulevard to the south and Vernon Avenue to the west. They come to sample posole and churros at El Gallo Giro, buy $600 Stetson cowboy hats at any of half a dozen Western stores and price bouffant satin wedding gowns and communion dresses at the boulevard's bridal shops.

"Some people go to Olvera Street, but that's for tourists," said Joe Jimenez, president of the Huntington Park Chamber of Commerce. "This is for the genuine Hispanic."

By courting Latino shoppers, a dying Pacific Boulevard revived itself 15 years ago to become one of the county's main shopping destinations for Latinos. Last year, sales in the shopping district totaled nearly $87 million.

"What effect did the Hispanics have on Pacific Boulevard?" Huntington Park Mayor Thomas Jackson asks rhetorically. "The obvious answer is they saved the boulevard."

Jackson, 59, a North Carolina native who speaks not a word of Spanish himself, has spent 27 of his 39 years in the city as either a councilman or mayor.

When he moved to Huntington Park in 1956, Pacific Boulevard was a major shopping district for southeast Los Angeles County. Shoppers came from Orange County, Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley.

"We used to have every kind of store known to man and at one time," he recalled. "We had every car dealership you might want."

But the boulevard began to stagnate in the late 1960s as shoppers deserted the city streets for air-conditioned malls. In the 1970s, city officials decided the boulevard--indeed, the entire city--needed refurbishing.

Over the next 20 years, the city spent millions on more than 100 redevelopment projects. An industrial park went up, homes were rehabilitated, condominiums and apartment complexes were built and Pacific Boulevard spruced up with half a dozen two-story commercial buildings.

"It went through a decline and a rebirth," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "Like the phoenix, it was reborn in a completely different way."

The redevelopment proceeded while the population was shifting, from 29,000 residents in the 1960s, nearly all of them Anglo, to 75,000 residents, 96% of them Latino, Jackson said. The boulevard changed to appeal to its new residents.

"There wasn't a master plan, it just happened," said Jackson, who has operated a Huntington Park florist shop for 25 years. "Businesses cater to who walks in the door."

Today, the boulevard pulses to a Latino beat. The shopping courtyards bear names such as Fiesta Plaza and Margarita Plaza. Street vendors peddle cucumber spears and coconut slices down the street from the three movie houses showing first-run films such as "Species," "Showgirls" and "Seven"--all with Spanish subtitles.

Salsa and ranchera music blare from stereo shops and clothing stores. The language of business on the boulevard is Spanish, even for merchants of Middle Eastern and Korean descent.

Alberto Arellano, 32, a Long Beach construction worker, strolled the boulevard on a recent Sunday with his pregnant wife, Marta, and their two sons. The visit meant a three-hour, round-trip bus ride, but Arellano said the family's monthly visits are worth it to savor the street's atmosphere.

"There are a few stores like this in Long Beach, but they don't have the Mexican crowds and the prices are not as cheap as here," Arellano said.

Pacific Boulevard features two Latino nightclubs, one that offers norteno bands on one floor and Mexican rock 'n' roll on the other.

In addition, Pacific has drawn specialty businesses that appeal to Latinos. Many of the city's more than 125 bilingual medical clinics have offices along the boulevard. More than a dozen bridal shops that sell communion and baptismal dresses are clustered along the street, as are a score of Western shops catering to Latinos who favor Banda -style cowboy boots and attire.

One Western store operator, Monir Awada, Lebanon-born co-owner of Tres Hermanos, opened a Levi's outlet in the city 14 years ago. But in 1985, he changed the store name and merchandise to appeal to his Latino customers. Now he runs eight stores with 100 employees in Southern California, he said.

Jimenez, manager of the boulevard's Woolworth's store, said he increased profit by appealing to Latinos. He stocks tamarindos and barrilitos, Mexican candies, and replaced the typical Woolworth's bologna sandwiches with burritos and tacos.

The store was struggling in 1993 and was scheduled to close. But Jimenez said he persuaded the chain to keep it open, pointing out to a Woolworth's executive the crowds of shoppers on the boulevard.

"The previous manager was Anglo and had no knowledge of the Hispanic culture," Jimenez said.

Although Latinos from the area with higher incomes tend to shop Southeast malls such as Stonewood Center in Downey or Montebello Town Center, Pacific Boulevard pulls in the newer immigrants and "definitely fills a niche in the Latino community," Kyser said.

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Pacific's success has merchants on struggling Broadway, four miles away, casting envious glances. Another shopping district popular with Latinos, Broadway merchants in Downtown Los Angeles recorded sales last year of $126 million but they feel their business is slipping away and sales are down.

"Our main competition is Pacific Boulevard," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Miracle on Broadway Business Improvement District. "That street is flourishing. It took a lot of our customers."

Despite the bustle of the street, a score of troubles worry Huntington Park officials and merchants. The first-generation Mexican American shoppers are increasingly giving way to recent immigrants with lower-paying jobs and less money.

Mirta Luppino, who operates La Femme and Touch of Elegance bridal shops, said customers five years ago typically spent more than $1,500, buying a dozen gowns and renting tuxedos for quinceaneras, a traditional Mexican celebration of a girl's 15th birthday.

Now such extravagance is rare, Luppino said. Celebrants pay an average $235 for the quinceanera gown alone and rent only half a dozen tuxedos.

Mary Medrano, a jewelry store owner of 28 years on the boulevard, says many recent immigrants can't afford the higher-priced goods that sold well in years past, such as identification bracelets, rings and diamond jewelry. Now small gold charms and religious medals are her big sellers, she said.

Crime also plagues the boulevard. Illegal immigrants snap up phony identification from miqueros , while across the street hustlers peddle long-distance phone calls at pay phones using stolen credit card numbers.

To clean up Pacific, the city opened a police substation and created a business improvement district, assessing merchants for security guards and promotion. And to promote the boulevard, the Chamber of Commerce sponsors weekend festivals twice a year that each bring 250,000 people to the boulevard.

Jimenez and other merchants acknowledge that the boulevard has suffered in the recession. But they hope the city's efforts will improve the atmosphere along the boulevard and retain its appeal to Latinos.

"A business across the street had a going-out-of-business sale last week, but today there's a new store opening up," Jimenez said. "It just shows you the demand is there. The Latino market is here to stay."

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