BELLFLOWER — The old woman strolled along Bellflower Boulevard, stopping occasionally to browse in shop windows and to cool off in the shade of storefront awnings.
She walked along a nearly empty sidewalk past a string of antique shops before pausing in front of a display window. After glancing at a discarded hanger lying next to a mannequin, she shook her head and kept walking.
"It's kind of eerie," she said. "This place used to be so crowded with people and cars, you could barely make it down the street. On Friday and Saturday nights traffic was bumper to bumper."
Bellflower Boulevard is still crowded with cars, but now motorists seem to be driving past the downtown strip on their way to and from the Artesia Freeway. And if empty parking spaces are any indication, most motorists are not stopping to shop.
Reminders of Another Era
Compared to stores in the modern, air-conditioned malls of nearby Lakewood and Cerritos, stores along Bellflower's 1.5-mile downtown strip seem like aging remnants from another era.
Fifties-style neon signs still hang on storefronts that are as varied as the goods sold inside. Thrift stores, antique shops, clothing stores, small diners, toy and hobby shops seem to center around the most visible building on the boulevard--a former movie theater that now houses Hosanna Chapel, a nondenominational church.
But many downtown merchants remember when Bellflower Boulevard was once teeming with shoppers and young people cruising the street. In the 1940s, downtown Bellflower was known as the commercial hub of the Southeast area and the city's economic lifeline.
"Years back people came from all over to do their shopping in Bellflower," said Louise Dalton, who has worked on Bellflower Boulevard for 35 years and owns Kay's Beauty Salon. "You can't imagine what a terrific place this was to shop."
As more office buildings and fewer retail stores move into the area, city officials say there is little chance that downtown Bellflower will ever again be the bustling center it once was.
"A lot of city councils in the past have tried to revitalize the downtown area but they haven't succeeded because of the proximity of the malls," said Mayor Joseph Cvetko. "Our glory days are over. It will never be the downtown it was in the '40s."
But David Ryal, manager of the Bellflower Chamber of Commerce, sees a different future for downtown Bellflower.
Bellflower has a lot going for it," said Ryal, who became chamber manager in October, 1985. "It's the hometown atmosphere that makes Bellflower unique . . . but the city has to realize that we're in the '80s now and things have to progress."
This fall Ryal and the chamber will launch a yearlong campaign to revitalize Bellflower's business district.
Distributing First Newspaper
In November the chamber will publish its first newspaper, Ryal said. It will be mailed to the chamber's members in Bellflower, Cerritos, Paramount, Norwalk, Downey, Lakewood, and other surrounding cities.
He also plans to set up a SCORE (Service Corp of Retired Executives) program. SCORE is a volunteer group of retired professionals that advise small businesses.
Other projects include a series of business workshops co-sponsored by the chamber and Cerritos College that will start in the spring.
Ryal said he also wants to work with the city to establish a referral service next summer for people interested in opening businesses in Bellflower.
"I'd like to put together a list of available business properties, the size of each property, the amount of parking available, the cost of the property and a contact person to call to make it easier for new business people who want to set up shop here," Ryal said. "I don't think the city will fall apart without new businesses, but I also don't see the city growing unless we can get more revenue-generating businesses to come in. "
Carol Moffett, chamber president and co-owner of Moffett's Chicken Pies in the city, says she is enthusiastic about Ryal's approach.
"We really need younger blood and fresh ideas in this chamber," Moffett said. "Thirty years ago the attitude among merchants might have been 'What's good enough for Pa is good enough for me,' but I don't think that washes anymore. You have to take a chance."
The 6.1-square mile city, bordered by Lakewood to the south, Downey to the north, Paramount to the west, and Norwalk and Cerritos to the east, does not exactly have a history of taking chances.
In 1954, while surrounding cities incorporated one by one, Bellflower residents overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to incorporate. The move was spurred by the Committee Against Incorporation, headed by a local businessman.
"You know how it goes--stories got out, rumors got started, some people thought we would have city taxes," said Muriel F. MacGregor, president of the Bellflower Historical Society. "The bottom line is--people just don't like changes."