CUDAHY — James (Robbie) Robertson remembers well what this city was like when he opened a hobby shop here in 1946.
Back then, Cudahy was little more than a sleepy hamlet on the fringe of the Big City, a Podunk where chickens clucked in front yards of ranch houses and residents strolled past the neatly painted, mom-and-pop shops lining Atlantic Avenue, the community's major commercial thoroughfare.
"It was rural, with mailboxes out front of every place," recalled Robertson, a dapper man with the silver-rimmed spectacles and upturned white mustache of a Kentucky colonel. "It was like the Old West for years."
Those days, however, are long gone.
Today, Cudahy officials say their town is the most densely populated city west of the Mississippi River, a crowded, mile-square municipality etched out of the Los Angeles megalopolis--a tiny city with big-city problems.
The ranch-style houses have been replaced by rows of drab stucco apartment buildings. Nearly a third of the city's 19,700 residents are living at or below the poverty level. Crime and gang-related violence are on the rise. The city's commercial heartland bears the telling scars of blight. Redevelopment efforts, which began nine years ago, have so far done nothing to cure the problems.
It's 'Gone Downhill'
"The city's gone downhill, especially along Atlantic Avenue," Robertson said one recent afternoon as he watched a pair of prostitutes parade by his store. "The boulevard is as rundown as it's been since we came here, and that's been more than 37 years."
But many city officials and residents in Cudahy think the city is on the verge of a civic revival.
Earlier this month, the City Council approved the acquisition of 1.4 acres for a $1.5-million commercial complex, a modest cluster of small stores along Atlantic Avenue that officials hope will spur further construction in the area and send out a signal that Cudahy is serious about redevelopment.
"In most cities, this would be a very small project," City Manager Gerald Caton said. "But in Cudahy, since we're so small and have never done a project before, it's very important. It will get us on the development map."
More ambitious redevelopment deals are in the works, including an eight-acre shopping complex proposed for the city's northern entrance at the site of a defunct Boys Market. As city planners envision it, that center would contain a large grocery store, something the city has been without since Boys closed its doors a year ago.
In addition, the Redevelopment Agency has proposed another commercial complex for Atlantic Avenue and several developers have private projects for the downtown region on the drawing board, officials say.
Those projects, officials hope, will help improve the city's tight economic situation, turning what is today a trickle of sales and property taxes into a flood of revenue for city coffers.
"I think the market forces are there so it can happen," said Richard Tillberg, assistant city manager. "It's not like we're going to give a party and no one shows up. A lot of people in the development community are waking up to the fact that the entire Southeast area has a considerable amount of disposable income."
Despite such upbeat assessments, some residents and merchants remain skeptical about the prospects for a full-blown renaissance in Cudahy. They say the city's low-rent image, raucous political climate and poor record on redevelopment remain solid barriers to anything but a modest revival.
"I'm not waiting for the great Utopia to happen. It won't," said James Luna, a market owner and newly elected president of the Cudahy Chamber of Commerce.
Since the city launched its redevelopment effort in 1976, council members have failed to grasp the demographic realities of the community, Luna said.
Census figures indicate about 70% of the residents are Latino. Large families predominate; more than 80% of each household has four or more people. More than three-quarters of the residents live in apartments and the average yearly family income of $13,000 is almost half the county average.
"For a long time, the council had false illusions of redevelopment bringing in big shopping centers," Luna said. "They've got to realize what this city is and bring in something that people can support, things like discount stores with cheap prices. Only then will we get some money coming in."
"Our type of business district isn't like Wilshire Boulevard," said Mark Guho, owner of a building materials firm. "There's a market as long as a merchant caters to the people living here."
Although the reported crime rate in Cudahy is similar to that in surrounding cities, many outsiders regard the city as "a small, Mickey Mouse town" where gangs roam the streets and violence is common, Luna said.