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Noticing a Latin Flavor in Crenshaw

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one’s expecting the masses to rush to the Crenshaw business corridor, the heart of African American commerce in Los Angeles, for churros and chicken tacos.

But given the dramatic increase in the Latino population in the area--which stretches roughly from the Santa Monica Freeway to Slauson Avenue along Crenshaw Boulevard--African American and other merchants are adding snacks, signage and Latino staffers to help them fish in a widening revenue stream.

At the same time, many cling tenaciously to the Afrocentric theme that has become synonymous with the shopping district. Not wanting to see the Crenshaw corridor go the way of historic Central Avenue--yesteryear’s black mecca--many entrepreneurs say they are determined to appeal to the new recruits while hanging on to their roots.

“The Crenshaw area really is the last area in the city that has such a large concentration of African Americans. And overall, the business district still reflects that,” said Joyce Perkins, chairwoman of a community advisory committee for business development in the Crenshaw area. “That’s still the heart of the black business community.

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“But looking forward, I can see that there will be a sharing and a blending of the two [cultures],” she said. “The changes will be very exciting.”

The change is well underway.

While other parts of South Los Angeles saw a large Latino influx starting in the 1970s, the communities along the Crenshaw Boulevard corridor have remained largely African American. But figures from the 2000 census show that between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population in the area surrounding Crenshaw Boulevard increased by nearly 50%, while the African American population dipped by 11% and the white population dropped by more than a third.

And though the area--which includes the upscale communities of Baldwin Hills, View Park and Ladera Heights--remains predominantly black (64%), the growth curve has a definite Latino tilt.

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In four of the nearly 30 census tracts that make up the area, the Latino population increased by 99% or more. In none of the areas did the African American population climb by more than 30%.

“Since the mid-'70s, we’ve seen the westward march of predominately Hispanic census tracts,” said David E. Hayes-Bautista, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. “It seems like one census tract every year.”

In response to numbers like that, and to the increased number of Latino shoppers in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, Sabrina Chen added churros to the offerings at her T.J. Cinnamons bakery on the mall’s ground level.

The sugary treats have proved to be a hit with harried moms seeking to calm squealing young ones, she said. But overall, peach cobbler remains the favorite.

Likewise, at Stevie’s on the Strip, a popular soul food restaurant on Crenshaw, fish tacos joined the offerings of smothered chicken, greens and yams several years ago. Restaurateur Stephen Perry said soul food still wins out, even among the growing number of Latino customers.

“We are Creole and Southern,” said Perry, who has owned the restaurant for 16 years. “The Latino customers order across the menu. They have adapted to what we serve in our community.”

The adaptation goes both ways.

Cheryl Roberts, marketing director at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, said she’s seen a “growing cluster of Spanish-speaking employees” and more merchants themselves learning Spanish “as our customer base has developed in that area.”

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She and mall general manager Steve Gentry estimate that in the last five years, the Latino customer base has gone up between 25% and 40%. That’s been met, Gentry said, by about a 25% increase in the number of Spanish-speaking employees.

Dora Granados, a frequent shopper at the mall, welcomes the Latin-inspired changes, in part because it gets her out of the impromptu-translation business.

“I go to stores and they say, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’ ” said the native of El Salvador. “And they say, ‘Good. Can you translate for this lady?’ ”

Louis Malik, owner of Malik’s Bookstore, an Afrocentric bookshop in the mall, sees the management team as “aggressively targeting the Hispanic community” through special promotional events.

That makes sense, he said, given the changing demographics. But at his store, the focus remains on all things African American, including books and artwork by black creators.

“African Americans have been good to us,” he said, “and that’s who we serve.”

Indeed, the Crenshaw district has been the heart of the black business community for so long that the mall is referred to by many as L.A.'s “black mall.”

“It’s been the epicenter of the black business community for eons,” said Gentry, who grew up in Los Angeles. “Everybody does consider it the ‘black mall.’ But I don’t know if that’s accurate.

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“We’re a mall that’s a community-based mall.”

And that community is increasingly Latino.

Thomas Tseng, marketing director for the Cultural Access Group, a Los Angeles-based research company, believes that the more culturally oriented businesses in the district--the restaurants, gift shops and stores in the nearby Leimert Park Village--have the best chances of survival because they have something shoppers can’t always get in Riverside or Santa Monica.

Tseng and Roberts noted that it’s the region’s reputation as the black mecca that helps many businesses remain on firm footing, even as blacks leave the immediate area.

“People who live in the Valley, in Riverside, they have strong ties to the area,” Roberts said. “They have a sentimental tie to the center.”

And they come back to shop, and be expertly coiffed, and enjoy the kind of peach cobbler that is harder to find in Oxnard, for instance.

That draw from afar, even abroad, is what merchants like Laura Hendrix are counting on, as the local ethnic mix changes.

“We have been working hard to make this an African American village to increase traffic and tourism,” said Hendrix, president of the Leimert Park Merchants Assn., a 150-store enclave located a stone’s throw from the mall. She said the association pays close attention to how and where the village is marketed and to the product mix offered there.

Last year, the group discussed putting up signs saying “Se habla espanol,” but members decided that step wasn’t needed--yet.

“We wanted to have a unique feeling, to be the hub of African culture in Los Angeles. And that’s what we’ve done,” she said.

In the village, Hendrix said, more than 80% of the businesses are owned or operated by African Americans. And that hasn’t changed in recent years.

“If Latinos wanted to come and open a business, of course we wouldn’t get bats and run them out,” she said.

“But we do take pride in this being an African American village.”

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Central Avenue, to the east of Crenshaw, played the role of economic and cultural hub for black Los Angeles. But African American entrepreneurs left the region in droves after the 1960s, responding to civil unrest, demographic changes and general economic downturns.

Mark Wilson, who works with a nonprofit group seeking to revive the area, said that many small black-owned businesses--the shoe or TV repair shops--felt they had to move to survive once African Americans began moving out of the area.

According to Tseng, the mom-and-pop shops selling sodas and milk in the Crenshaw corridor will “by necessity have to respond more to the [demographic] changes” if they want to survive in the place.

For the culture-oriented businesses, Tseng sees the promote-yourself-as-an-icon approach as an effective strategy.

“There has to be a concerted effort to preserve that aspect of the area,” Tseng said. “If it continues to market itself that way, it will continue to thrive.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Changes in Crenshaw

Communities around the Crenshaw Boulevard business corridor have seen the Latino population rise while the African American and white populations declined. The area remains the heart of Los Angeles’ black business community, but merchants and business trade groups see a steady growth in Latino employment at African American-owned firms and a subtle shift of goods offered for sale there.

Compiled by RICHARD O’REILLY, RAY HERNDON and SANDRA POINDEXTER / Los Angeles Times

Source: Census Bureau


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