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Street is dreaming again

There are 7,000 miles of roads in Los Angeles. Few have shouldered more than South Central Avenue.

It was a streetcar line, cleared 122 years ago to shuttle commuters to the first suburb of South Los Angeles. It housed some of the nation’s first middle-class African American families, and its clubs and hotels were the laboratories where West Coast jazz was born. “The Avenue” was a place of promise, of strolls in your Sunday best -- “something very elegant,” said City Councilwoman Jan Perry.

But the manufacturing base withered and the downtown union jobs vanished. Those who could moved on. Central Avenue succumbed to poverty and joblessness, gangs and crack. It became something very different -- an emblem, Perry said, of “the demise of the American city.”

So this morning, at the haggard corner of Central and 20th Street, there will be no lack of fanfare when civic leaders open the doors of a project that carries with it more hope and expectation than it might elsewhere: a new supermarket.

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Superior Grocers is the first full-scale market to open in the community in at least five years. The store, which will cater largely to the area’s dominant Latino community, is the 33rd Superior in Southern California. It will serve as the anchor of a $27.5-million mixed-use development called Central Village: 45,000 square feet of retail space and 85 affordable-housing apartments.

At City Hall and in South L.A., many view the development as cause for optimism -- something that hasn’t been in vogue here for 50 years or so -- and a suggestion, however humble, of a resurrection.

“A lot of our kids see what’s around them and think that nothing ever changes,” said Sharon Ramos, the youth director at a nearby church and community center who plans to shop at the market. “This is a start, a way for them to see that things do change. It’s a big deal around here.”

Most days, Central seems trapped between old and new. There are coin laundries and $39 hotels, sewing machine shops and auto garages, their walls covered with gang graffiti. Across the street from the towering Superior, men in work clothes ate silently at a taqueria Thursday, watching a Spanish-language western. To beat the heat, young mothers huddled with their strollers in the shade of a bus stop.

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And yet this same corridor is in the midst of a $150-million-plus construction jag.

Early next year, another full-service grocery, a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, is set to open at Central and East Adams Boulevard. That will anchor another mixed-use project, a $32-million development with 18,500 square feet of retail space and 79 affordable-housing apartments.

Even the sudden availability of produce will be a significant development. Researchers concluded recently that the neighborhood is a food “desert” where it is nearly impossible for many families to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Phil Lawrence, Superior’s chief operating officer, said Thursday that the company’s research revealed a potential market of 440,000 people in 120,000 households -- and a dramatically underserved neighborhood.

A third mixed-use project, the $28-million Rittenhouse Square, is scheduled to open next spring at Central and East 33rd Street. It will include 4,500 square feet of retail space and 100 apartments for seniors. And Perry’s $13-million Constituent Service Center -- a local city hall of sorts, complete with rooftop garden -- will open next month at Central and East 43rd Street.

Several other projects are scheduled to follow. A $9.3-million early education center and health clinic is expected next year on East Jefferson Boulevard, just west of Central, followed in the next few years by another $15-million housing development and a $23-million renovation of a YMCA.

“We’re going to give people back their history,” Perry said.

Central Avenue has a long way to go; even with crime falling, it is the north-south spine of an LAPD district that counts 41 gangs in nine square miles, all within sight of City Hall and downtown’s skyscrapers. The development, many hope, will serve as a spark.

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“I absolutely think it’s a resurrection of what it used to be,” said Johnny Andrade, the business liaison of the fledgling Central Avenue Business Assn., which has 63 members. “That’s what everyone here is hungry for.”

There are concerns here that the city could go too far -- that all of this activity could push local business owners and working-class families out of one of the few pockets of the city they can still afford.

Central Avenue, originally a residential street, is home to an unusual building type called a “taxpayer block” -- small brick buildings, many of them built before World War I, with retail space on the ground floor and apartments or offices above.

Many are in disrepair or covered with stucco. But city planners, during pie-in-the-sky moments, speak wistfully of a day when those buildings might be restored and nestled among mixed-use developments, giving the community a distinct flair: retro next to modern, a village atmosphere where people live and work in the same place.

Leaders like Andrade can’t decide whether that sounds like nirvana or gentrification.

Superior has hired 130 residents in full-time positions, with benefits and retirement plans. To that extent, the supermarket is already an economic spark.

Still, much of the construction is being paid for through public sources, furthering concerns about city-sponsored gentrification. So Andrade and others hope to leverage the public projects to generate private investment and earnings.

For example, banking on increased visibility, the Central Avenue Business Assn. just printed its first coupon book: a buy-three-get-one-free deal on Salvadoran pupusas, and a free haircut with a perm at Darlings Beauty Salon.

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And later this month, the association will offer an eight-week grant-funded workshop for entrepreneurs and business owners. It will conclude with a certificate that can make it easier to secure private bank funding.

“It’s baby steps,” Andrade said. “We just want to make sure nobody gets pushed out.”

On balance, the development is viewed as cause for celebration. Just down the street from Superior Grocers, at Central and East 27th Street, is the headquarters of Maria Palmas’ proud empire.

Palmas, 53 and a mother of seven, immigrated to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico. She began with a food stand in 1973 and now operates three bustling carnicerias -- meat markets -- in the area.

Her Las Palmas shops offer pork feet, adobada steaks and chicharrones, but the specialty is chorizo sausage she makes herself. “La mejor en California,” she volunteered nonchalantly. “The best.”

Like most markets in South L.A., hers seem to offer a bit of everything else: loofah sponges and toy trains; home-pregnancy kits and baby bottles; a few bras hanging by the register, next to a tire-repair kit and a bowl of guavas Palmas picked in her own yard.

In theory, the new markets could bring competition; Superior, for instance, will offer a full-service meat case and a mini-tortilla factory like hers. But Palmas said she’s not concerned: “They’ll have their clients. I’ll have mine.”

Nothing but good, she said, can come from the new projects.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

Already, she said, the avenue feels busier and safer.

“People can walk down the street,” she said. “Before, you couldn’t; it was just too scary, both day and night.”

Still, she said with a chuckle, that doesn’t mean she’s given up the protection she keeps behind the counter: a .45 and a .38 Special.

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scott.gold@latimes.com

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About this series

This is the latest in a

series of reports about public safety, changing demographics, inventive social programs and other aspects of life in South Los Angeles.


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