Hope and grumbling

Times Staff Writer

Until recently, the golden cherubs and embellished pillars lining the walls of the Westlake Theatre swap meet meant little more than a fancy backdrop for Virginia Anaya and her busy vitamin and makeup business.

This was the place where, decades earlier, Charlie Chaplin delighted audiences and Los Angeles’ elite, the residents of the district’s Spanish-style mansions and high-rise homes, gathered to relax with an evening of theater.

Today, it is where Anaya sells laxatives and eye shadow to make a living. The 65-year-old Salvadoran stands by unfazed as wide-eyed history buffs pass her booth every week, tilting their heads in admiration toward the Rococo-style paintings on the ceiling.

The surrounding community has been transformed dramatically since the theater opened 82 years ago across from MacArthur Park on South Alvarado Street.


Before World War II, it was one of Los Angeles’ more fashionable districts, home to some in the movie industry.

“The theater was an anchor for what was an elegant neighborhood built around one of Los Angeles’ important open spaces,” said Ken Bernstein, the manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources.

It declined after World War II -- only to be repopulated beginning in the 1980s by immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and other parts of Central America.

The area around MacArthur Park still bustles with the feel of an immigrant neighborhood, filled with street vendors and aging, densely packed apartment buildings. But the gentrification that has swept parts of downtown Los Angeles is moving west, buoyed by several nearby condo developments and a successful effort by the Los Angeles Police Department to reduce crime and gang activity.

The revitalization of the Westlake Theatre underscores this shift -- and highlights the tensions that have come with it.

Earlier this year, a city redevelopment agency bought the neglected theater, drawn by its charming potential and historic appeal. Plans are underway to turn it into an entertainment hub offering a mix of film and music shows, along with programs and classes for the community. Affordable housing would be built next door.

Some neighbors such as Sandra Romero, an activist and co-founder of nearby Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe, see an opportunity to give more to residents and entice outsiders to visit the area. She pictures the theater as a place for youths to learn, artists to flourish and families to safely enjoy the district, as she used to do with her grandmother in the late 1950s.

“This ties in wonderfully with the positive things that everyone is trying to bring back to the park,” said Romero, who has been heavily involved in the area’s makeover since the 1990s. “It gives us another project to take to the world and say, ‘Come to MacArthur Park.’ ”

But some swap meet vendors worry about what will become of their businesses and say they feel as if they are being pushed out.

Anaya, along with most of the vendors, wants to see the building restored, but is sorry to lose the sense of community the swap meet has created for nearly two decades.

Many of the vendors, most of them Central Americans, look after one another’s shops, share homemade meals and greet regulars by name. Conversations revolve around family, Central America and God. As reggaeton and rancheras blare from boom boxes, dozens of hawkers wander in weekly off the streets selling pupusas, gum and other items. Shoppers stream in every day for cheap deals such as $5 heels, $5 backpacks and $5 shirts.

Anaya and about 50 other business owners will need to find a new home by early 2010. Some have already started to downsize or have moved on to other work, leaving vacant spaces that have hurt business for those who remain. Many vendors have shopped for new sites at surrounding swap meets but are turned away because of competing booths.

“Why don’t they go to other communities and do this?” said Anaya, who has lived on what she earns at the swap meet for more than a decade. “We feel at home here, as if we’re in our country. MacArthur Park has been a witness to all of our struggles.”

Jose Garcia, owner of Jose’s Sastreria, an alterations booth, took over the business at the swap meet five years ago. The Guatemalan uses his earnings to support his family, but since word of the swap meet’s planned closure got out, his clientele has dwindled, he said.

“Our people look for us, for their own people,” Garcia said. “But now they think we’re about to close or already closed, so they don’t come anymore.”

Officials with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency say they are seeking to attract a mix of people from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to the proposed theater.

“We’d like to offer discounts to the local community, some incentive to go in and see shows,” said Leslie Lambert, the agency’s regional director for the Westlake area. “We don’t want to see only a bunch of Westsiders coming and leaving. We want to help the community with jobs and local hiring.”

The redevelopment agency paid $5.7 million for the theater and is covering the vendors’ relocation costs. City officials continue to meet with vendors to discuss the plan. Construction may begin by spring 2010. In the next few weeks, the city plans to start searching for a developer.

The theater once showed first-run fare but eventually became a bargain theater before it closed nearly two decades ago. The swap meet opened 1992.

A level concrete floor was poured in the orchestra area where vendors now sell their goods. The balcony remains intact, the rooftop neon sign has been preserved and the original Spanish Rococo details are in good condition, but overall, the site is in dire need of a renovation.

“This was a very well-crafted and well-designed theater with connections to Hollywood,” said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “It has the opportunity to be a real focus.”

Some in the MacArthur Park community agree.

Carlos Vaquerano, a Salvadoran community leader who has participated in some of the project’s planning meetings, said the theater could be a significant addition to the area if it is run properly.

“Choosing who will manage the theater could be controversial,” Vaquerano said. “They need to bring in a company that’s local, that knows the community and its cultural aspects so the local community feels comfortable.”

The city has worked to give swap meet vendors plenty of time to relocate, said Tony Perez, a spokesman for Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes the theater. He said the plan fits into a larger vision for the MacArthur Park area, one that includes creating a Plaza de las Americas, a community square connecting the park to the theater.

“There will be a sense of loss, of having lost the swap meet,” Perez said. “But people are going to appreciate that they’re gaining another facility that really gives another level of respect to the community at large.”

Until then, Anaya said, she plans to pause more often to admire the ornate detail of the facade, balcony and ceiling of the building she will soon abandon.

“We laugh about it sometimes,” she said of the vendors. “Now that we have to leave, everything looks so much prettier to us.”