The Business of This Los Angeles District Is Clear

Times Staff Writer

There's a Fashion District, a Jewelry District, a Toy District, an Artist District.

For the glassy-eyed commuter, Los Angeles also has a Windshield District.

It's in a corner of Boyle Heights where one group of enterprising workers is proving that the Southern California car culture is everything it's cracked up to be.

Eighteen automobile glass shops operate in a half-mile area bounded by Mission Road and the Santa Ana, San Bernardino and Golden State freeways.

Seven days a week, the concentration of mostly ramshackle repair outlets draws a steady stream of cars with smashed windows, bullet-punctured windshields and malfunctioning power-window mechanisms.

Arm-waving flagmen stand in the street, energetically directing drivers inside. In the driveways, sprinkles of tempered-glass speckles sparkle in the sunlight.

Across the Los Angeles River to the west, downtown skyscrapers form a glimmering backdrop to the rows of colorfully hand-painted "auto glass" signs.

"Everybody seems to know about this area," said Sandra Anthony, a Pasadena accountant who was inside a shack-like "waiting room" outfitted with recycled minivan seats at Jalisco Auto Glass.

"My dad told me to take the car to Mission Road. I said, 'Where on Mission Road?' He said, 'Just go. You can't miss it. You'll see the flags.' My niece came here from Rialto to get a window fixed too."

The windshield of Anthony's Ford had been cracked in a crash. A dealer close to her home would have replaced it for $200. A place a few doors away had quoted $125. Jalisco was doing it for $85, she said.

It took only minutes for workers to peel away the broken windshield's rubber gasket, pry loose the old glass, scrape away the old seal, vacuum up dirt and glass fragments, spread new adhesive sealant, put the new glass in place against the glue and then outline the whole thing with replacement rubber molding.

"I was afraid that the glass would break and cut them when they pulled it out," Anthony said. "It didn't."

Down the street at Lugo's Auto Glass, Jerry Lugo was busy installing a new driver's-side window on a Mazda Miata. He has worked at the family shop for 13 years -- half his life.

His hands and wrists are scarred from nicks and slices. But he has never had to have stitches, Lugo said. "You get used to the cuts in this business."

Customer Jack Chen of Monterey Park was watching the $90 repair to his sister's sports car, damaged in a break-in. "I wish I could have caught the guy who broke the window. Nothing was even taken," he said, shrugging.

Across Mission Road at GTO Auto Glass #2, Ben Padilla was having a power window repaired on his in-laws' Honda. The $100 project would have cost $230 at a dealer's garage, he said.

"This isn't a fancy place, where you sit and watch TV and sip coffee while they work. But I'm not paying $130 for a cup of coffee either," said Padilla, a mail carrier who lives in Alhambra. "Here, they took the window motor rail out and repaired it. The dealer wouldn't do that. He'd have sold me a new part."

Shop partner Willie Almanza, who has worked windshields for 20 years, said Mission's collection of repair shops sprang from a hodgepodge of old auto wrecking yards that lined the road 25 years ago.

The small junkyards had fallen victim to larger "pick-a-part" recycling centers that were popping up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, he said.

Jose Arellano is the street's "Godfather of Glass," the man credited with starting it all.

Arellano, 50, began as an automobile glass repairman in 1974 by renting a stall in a Mission Road garage.

He was soon using a bicycle to carry replacement windows and windshields culled from junked cars to customers in other nearby garages.

Arellano purchased a gas station and an automotive scrap yard lot at what is now Mission and Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in 1985. Eight years later, he had a three-story, V-shaped windshield warehouse built there.

These days his San Luis Auto Glass has 42 car-window repair stalls. The workers replace about 6,000 broken windows and windshields a month. His self-designed, steel-reinforced concrete glass-storage building has special arms that cradle 45-pound windshields during earthquakes.

Arellano stocks new windshields from glass manufacturers in the United States, Mexico and Asia. His success helped prompt the smaller, independently owned auto glass shops to open around him.

"The competition is healthy. It's good for the area," said his son, Jose Jr. "Most of the repair people on Mission started with my dad. He's the teacher."

One of them, 23-year-old Alexander Rodrigues, said the neighborhood's concentration of auto glass shops is far greater than can be found anywhere else, including a five-mile stretch of Alameda Street between Huntington Park and Compton, where about 25 small glass shops are spread out.

But Mission Road repairmen wince when certain cars heed the flag-wavers and pull into their shops.

"Saturns and Bentleys, one of the cheapest cars and one of the most expensive, have the hardest glass to change," Rodrigues said.

And nobody wants to tackle a broken or leaky sunroof, which are mostly proprietary designs that make for a tough fix.

In the Windshield District, that means the sky's the limit.

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