It has been almost a year since Ivers Department Store, the big draw of the Highland Park shopping district, closed its doors on North Figueroa Street, dealing a blow to businesses all along the road.
Many of the mom-and-pop-type shops and businesses that front a 10-block strip of Figueroa between Avenues 50 and 60 counted on the foot traffic Ivers generated for 71 years, merchants say. "It hurt because Ivers' sales got a lot of shoppers here," said Wanda Hatler, president of the struggling Highland Park Chamber of Commerce.
Hatler, who runs a printing shop across the street from where Ivers was, said she sometimes catches herself staring at the empty department store at Avenue 58 and wishing it were still open.
There's a lot of wishing going on along North Figueroa these days.
Sale of Building Hoped
Merchants are wishing that the Ivers building will be sold soon, as much rumored, to a new department store, or made into a shopping arcade. They are wishing that the renovation of the old Masonic temple on Avenue 56 into a complex of offices and shops will add a spark to the area, as they hope an influx of young, upwardly mobile Latino and Asian businessmen will. They are hoping that this weekend's cultural festival in the neighborhood will let outsiders know that shopping on North Figueroa can be more pleasant than in impersonal malls.
"Even though we're down now, there are a lot of possibilities that we could fly," said Hatler. "Like somebody was telling me the other day: We're due."
A city-backed plan to beautify and rejuvenate the area was launched in 1978 but collapsed last year with little to show for it. So talk of a rebirth along North Figueroa is greeted with some skepticism, the dreams tempered with harsher reality.
"Everybody is kind of waiting and seeing," said George Raines, owner of the Sport Cellar, a sporting goods store just a few shops down from Ivers. "The business topic of the day is, what are they going to put into Ivers? There have been so many rumors, I don't even listen anymore."
Jess Ivers Jr., president of Ivers, said in a recent interview that his 37,000-square-foot building may be sold soon. Ivers, however, declined to give any details about such a sale other than to say that one of the offers he is considering is from a developer who wants to convert the structure into a shopping arcade.
In any case, Jess Ivers, too, is aware that "they need something down there." He said that he was forced to close the Highland Park department store because it was losing too much money, unlike the Ivers store that is doing well in La Canada Flintridge, a more affluent community.
Trouble in 1970s
By the time Ivers decided to throw in the towel, Highland Park had been down, if not exactly out, for quite a while. The strip, once a vibrant and fashionable suburban shopping district, has yet to recover from the commercial bloodletting it underwent in the 1970s from a prolonged recession and a profusion of shopping plazas and malls in nearby Eagle Rock, Glendale and Pasadena.
"It's rough to make a living in Highland Park, believe me," Floyd Armstrong, owner and operator of Armstrong's Thrift Shop on North Figueroa, said on a slow Saturday afternoon near the end of the month.
Business on North Figueroa only tends to pick up, Armstrong said, around the 1st and the 15th of the month, when welfare and other government assistance checks are delivered. His business has been for sale since October.
On top of other problems, Highland Park gained a reputation for youth gangs that scared away some middle-class shoppers. Local police say that the gangs in the area are not as violent as those in South Central Los Angeles but that they are active nonetheless.
Bill Warren, owner of Warren Stationery on North Figueroa and president of the Highland Park Symphony Assn., feels that the neighborhood has gotten a bum rap. So last year, he organized a local festival "because we wanted to show that this is not just a community of gangs and thieves, but that we had culture here." Included are such cultural landmarks as the Southwest Museum, Heritage Square and El Alisal, the home of Highland Park's most famous resident, Charles Lummis, who was a journalist and pioneer in the preservation of Southwest architecture and artifacts.
Festival organizers and merchants especially hope to attract the young urban professionals clustered in condominiums on nearby Monterey Hills. "We want these people to know that there is culture available here at little or no cost," Warren said. "This is also to try to entice them to shop in Highland Park."
Another possible future attraction is the old Masonic temple. A three-story brick building that was bought by private developers in 1983, the temple is undergoing renovation to bring it up to code under the city's earthquake ordinance.