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'Little India' : Enterprising Immigrant Merchants Adding Spice to Artesia's Main Street

April 06, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

Taped in the corner of a display case at Patel Bros. grocery in Artesia is a photograph of a typically American scene: Owner Ravi Merchant, flanked by family and a handful of smiling city dignitaries, is struggling to snip a long strand of ribbon with oversized scissors.

"That was a proud, proud moment," Merchant recalled of the ceremony last June marking the opening of his import market, which specializes in spices and foods from India.

Such scenes are repeated almost weekly as stores selling Indian sweets, appliances, clothing, groceries and jewelry open their doors along Pioneer Boulevard, Artesia's main street. Merchant is among a growing number of Indians who are turning a four-block stretch of downtown Artesia that some residents now call "Little India" into one of the nation's largest Indian business districts.

"It took me five years to get a visa to come here," said Merchant, who at 38 is the youngest of 12 children. Most of his family still lives in India, a hardship, he said, for him and his wife. "But to gain something," he added philosophically, "you have to lose something. There is great opportunity here."

Enterprising Indian merchants, some of whom were operating elsewhere in the United States, have seized the opportunity, giving a new spice to the small, middle-class city of 14,400. In the process, they have begun to revitalize an aging business district, according to city officials--and, inevitably, have ruffled some local feathers.

Artesia lies within minutes of 10,000 to 12,000 Indian emigres who have settled in the suburbs straddling the Los Angeles-Orange county line over the last two decades. Indian businessmen spotted the demand and began setting up shops in Artesia in the late 1970s. It was easy for Indians to locate in the city's slumping business district--a victim of regional shopping malls and changing times. Leases were cheap and available.

Today, Indians come from as far away as the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area and even Arizona to shop. "One family comes here every 15 days from Phoenix," Merchant said, "and spends $300 on rice, spices and oils."

Only Jackson Heights in Queens and Chicago's Devon Street have more native stores and restaurants, according to a spokesman at the Indian Embassy in Washington.

"On the West Coast, Artesia is the Indian shopping district," said Rajen S. Anand, president of the Federation of Indian Assns. of Southern California. He said Artesia has become the "hub of the Indian community," which he estimates numbers close to 35,000 in a three-county area, stretching from West Los Angeles to Riverside to Mission Viejo.

About 60,000 Indians lived in California at the time of the 1980 Census, and the amount of legal and illegal immigration has undoubtedly grown. Last year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that Indians were the second-largest non-Latino group coming illegally across the Mexican border. And the number of visas to Indians climbed from 15,344 in 1977 to a record high 22,033 in 1984, according to the State Department.

In Artesia, nearly two dozen businesses are now owned or operated by Indians, many of them from the area around Bombay in western India. Most live in southeast Los Angeles or across the county line in La Palma, Stanton and West Anaheim.

Most are clustered along Pioneer Boulevard, a four-lane thoroughfare that slices north-south through Artesia, especially between 183rd and 187th streets. Despite the influx of Indian shopkeepers, Pioneer's appearance has changed little in recent years. The one- and two-story buildings look much the way they did when they were rebuilt after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

The city shows few outward signs of a demographic shift. Signs above Indian businesses are in English. Indian customers, for the most part, wear Western garb. And a small but growing number of Americans frequent the Indian shops.

"You can't beat the prices for material," said Molly Reen, a Lakewood housewife and dressmaker who stops frequently on Pioneer to buy imported Indian cloth. She had just purchased four eggshell-colored silk saris and explained, "My daughter is getting married in June, and I wanted something soft and colorful for the bridesmaids' dresses."

But not everybody has rolled out the welcome mat for the Indian merchants.

Some longtime Artesia store owners resent the fact that Indian merchants have chosen, by and large, not to join the Chamber of Commerce. Others complain that landlords prefer leasing to Indians because they are willing to pay more.

Established merchants, some of whom have operated along Pioneer Boulevard for half a century, complain that parking is now at a premium, particularly on weekends. The crowds, some local businessmen say, discourage customers from frequenting their stores.

Some Feel Uncomfortable

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