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Chinatown’s Sidewalk Clutter Targeted

Times Staff Writer

Chinatown’s philosophy dictates that the dazzle in the display will compel passersby to stop and shop. Every inch in front of the store counts when hawking silk slippers, bamboo umbrellas and Buddhist beads.

But because of complaints, merchants were told to move their wares indoors by the end of this week, city officials said, to prevent accidents and to give pedestrians ample room.

Both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Building and Safety Department say Chinatown, which opened in 1938, has presented hazards for those on foot for too long. They will issue non-compliance fees of up to several hundred dollars depending on how many warnings the shop owner has received and how much merchandise is in front of the store.

“I understand that businesses are small, that displays need to be more attractive, but the reality is the streets are getting blocked and it’s causing public safety issues,” said Officer Ken Lew, a native of Chinatown and the community’s liaison with the Police Department.

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Yan Ma, an immigrant from southwest China who owns Yan’s Gifts and Souvenirs, expects business to dwindle if he moves indoors merchandise that is now displayed five feet from the front of his store at North Broadway and Ord streets. Like most stores dotting the neighborhood near Cesar Chavez Boulevard and the Pasadena Freeway, his shop is the size of a janitor’s closet.

“Chinatown is not like American malls,” said Ma, who will relocate his merchandise as soon as he finds room. “We don’t have brands like Calvin Klein or Armani. It’s about cute stuff. They have to see something they like and then they buy.”

Moments later, customer Daniel Brady stopped outside of the store and rummaged through bags of stones before choosing a collection of jade-colored pebbles for a total of $1. What if it hadn’t been outside?

“Then I wouldn’t have bought it,” Brady said.

Kasey Goveia, who was on her way to get dim sum when she stopped to buy a good luck ornament, said the law would stifle the area’s allure.

“The only reason I come here is because it’s like a bazaar,” she said. “That’s what gives Chinatown its charm.”

Attracting customers is one thing. Finding room to fit all the knickknacks is another.

Ma looked helplessly around for space to place his goods in his shop, which costs more than $2,000 a month to rent. His sister-in-law was squeezed between cardboard boxes eating lunch, sitting on steps that end abruptly at a makeshift wall. His baby nephew was being held by the boy’s grandmother in the only open space: the sidewalk.

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City officials say they have done all they can to slowly introduce the law into the area. Meetings were held in August with business leaders to explain what needed to be done. The law was translated into Chinese. Inspectors went store to store, giving suggestions. And merchants such as Ma were given written warnings as recently as December, instead of being charged noncompliance fees.

“They don’t like to come in and just wreak havoc,” said Bob Steinbach, a spokesman for the Building and Safety Department.

Steinbach acknowledged that there are other areas in the city with similar problems that can’t be corrected because the department’s compliance team is not large enough.

George Yu, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, said the new policy will improve Chinatown. He said it will bolster the neighborhood’s latest victories: the opening of the MTA’s Gold Line station and the influx of artists and galleries.

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“The merchants will survive this and come out fine,” Yu said. “It will put everyone on an equal playing field.”

On Broadway, there’s anything but parity.

Tracy Diep of Wing Wa Hing Gifts & Arts Inc. could only watch from inside as her neighbor wooed shoppers with his “lucky trees” for $5.99 while stationed on a driveway next to his store.

“We follow the rules, but nobody else wants to,” said Diep, who, like many vendors in Chinatown, is from Vietnam.

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The inconsistency in compliance has confused store owners, who are unsure whether to take the threat of action seriously or not.

Christine Luong of Ich Fung Co. on College Street watched her mother pace the store, nervously wondering if she had to move her small bamboo trees and sporting goods inside.

“We’re just winging it now,” she said.


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