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Merchants Trying to Revive Business District in Atwater

July 11, 1985|SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writer

In 1925, the Glendale Evening News heralded the tiny northeast Los Angeles community of Atwater as Southern California's fastest-growing suburb.

"From a Japanese flower garden with but a half-dozen scattered dwellings to mark the site in 1922, the section has grown to a thriving community of 7,500 population, boasting more than 125 business institutions and occupying a place in the limelight of development of greater Los Angeles," the paper said in its edition of March 24, 1925.

Sixty years later, Atwater, bounded approximately by the Los Angeles River to the west, Glendale to the north, San Fernando Road to the east and the Glendale Freeway to the south, doesn't make headlines anymore. And the ethnically diverse residents who live in the area's older, well-maintained, blue-collar neighborhoods like it that way.

But for many merchants along highly traveled Glendale Boulevard, the community's primary retail shopping area, business could be better.

Atwater is minutes from downtown Los Angeles, bounded by the relatively affluent communities of Silver Lake and Glendale. The nearby Golden State Freeway connects Atwater with nearly all the city's major freeways.

Yet for all the traffic, its central locale and the diversity of retail stores, Atwater's shopping area has been suffering a steady decline in business since the late 1960s. The downturn, some Atwater business people say, is attributable, in part, by aging storefronts, the construction of shopping malls nearby and apathy among merchants typified by the closing of the area's Chamber of Commerce in 1982 because of lack of interest.

"No matter what we did, the chamber didn't get the participation we needed," said William Narez, manager of Atwater's Crocker National Bank. "Then it slowly died."

At its peak, the Atwater chamber had 60 or 70 members, Narez said. But, after a couple of years, "I'd call meetings, and, instead of five or six board members, we'd only get two or three," he said.

The dissolution of the chamber repeated a pattern set after the 1960s, which was Atwater's last great decade of retail sales.

"The chamber was mainly a membership of about 40 business people," said Al Slaten, president of the chamber in 1968-69. "The storefronts were the chamber; anything we could do to keep the business flavor going.

"We used to have midnight sales, we had a Miss Atwater contest tied into our annual chamber dinner, we ran a carnival once a year, a contest for the best-decorated house at Christmas.

"Membership was never a tremendous amount, in the vicinity of 140. It ran like that for seven or eight years."

Atwater seemed more like a small community then, a place where you knew everyone by name, Slaten said.

By the time Slaten left the area in 1975, he had sold the last of six storefronts he owned on Glendale Boulevard, his ledgers for the previous five or six years showing a steady decline in sales.

The area was clearly changing, he said. There were malls going up everywhere and business activity declined, as did merchants interested in taking a leadership role in the chamber.

"When I left, interest was dropping off," Slaten said. "Part of the reason was that six people had pumped everything they had into the chamber, and you couldn't find any new blood to take over. It takes a lot of work. After a few years as president or treasurer, you just want to hand it over to somebody."

Now, two Atwater residents are trying to revive the Atwater Chamber of Commerce. Bill Hart and Barbara Lass say they hope to harness the enthusiasm of new business people and convince older merchants that there is economic strength in organizing.

They have established a track record in the community, successfully lobbying City Hall for funds to build an Atwater library, now in its final design stage. They say they don't want to change Atwater, just to enhance its village atmosphere.

"I'll be going out to meet the merchants and recruit members," said Hart, who, with Lass, owns a tree service. "I want to tell them that we're there to get them business. We want to get the local people to come in, let them know what's there, and also bring in commuters.

"We've gone through an awkward stage. A previous generation did well in Atwater and then they let it fade. Now it's time for a new generation."

Third Generation at Store

One of the new generation of Atwater merchants is Ron Beach, 28, who has taken over the 45-year-old Beach's market, started by his grandfather. After learning the business, starting as a box boy, Beach earned a degree in business from Brigham Young University and returned to the family store. His grandfather is now his landlord.

"I took the store over at the beginning of the year and formed my own corporation," Beach said. "My grandfather is going to be 80 but he's still the boss and the concepts he used I'm sticking to.

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