Max Kramer is happy about the new paint job and awning on his clothing store on Fairfax Avenue. But he's not sure who will pay for them.
"I don't believe it even now," Kramer told a staffer for the Vitalize Fairfax Project, a semi-public organization that organized a bare-bones grant program to refurbish the shopping district. "You're going to send a bill later."
The staffer, Paul Freedman, denied it when the two met on the street last week, repeating his assurances that the storefront renovation is being underwritten by the federal government.
But he said he understood the merchant's concerns. In the beginning, he said, "quite a few were hesitant to start. . . . It comes down to who trusts government.' It seems ridiculous that you can't give away money."
In the end, property owners and merchants on both sides of Fairfax Avenue agreed to the program, which has brightened the street with palm trees, awnings, plastic store signs and color-coordinated exterior paints.
With the first phase nearly complete, a dedication ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 22 at a new public parking lot carved out of the southwest corner of the Fairfax High School campus.
The lot, with room for 60 cars, is part of a series of improvements sponsored by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky after a 1982 report warned that economic forces could obliterate the street's ethnic character.
Other changes include a local minibus service with discount prices for the area's large population of senior citizens and a mural depicting the history of the city's Jewish community.
Not everyone is entirely content, however.
Alex Goldman, owner of Sidney's Fine Shoes, would have been happier if his neon sign had been replaced. But Freedman said neon was too expensive, so Goldman's slogan, "Shoes for Wide Feet," now appears on his awning.
Still, Goldman said, "It looks nicer than it has been before."
"I'm not real impressed with the results," said one storekeeper who asked not to be identified. "We're supposed to be appreciative. After all, it's free."
She said many of the awnings and signs were repetitive and skimpy compared to what they would look like if the merchants had paid for them themselves, but Yaroslavsky said he found that complaint hard to take seriously.
"We wish the property owners would have done it on their own," he said. "They didn't. That's the problem."
Over the years, he said, the street had deteriorated largely because individual owners saw little benefit in improving their own properties when shoddiness was becoming the norm.
"They said, 'Business is good. Why spend money?' " said Al Landolph, an executive at the nearby CBS complex who serves on the board of Vitalize Fairfax.
"We said, 'Sure it's good, but why not make it better? Maybe more people from CBS would go up there and eat lunch if the place looked nicer. Maybe people from different parts of town would come here. Maybe people from CBS and Farmers Market will take a stroll up there. Why not take advantage of the crowds that are here anyway?' "
Once the project got under way, the area's large concentration of low-income senior citizens made it eligible for federal grants administered by the city's Community Development Department.
The free renovation work cost about $5,000 per storefront.
"We tried to get maximum cluck for the buck," said John Loomis of 30th Street Architects, an Orange County firm that worked with a local architectural firm, Bruce Sternberg & Associates, to draw up plans for the renovation.
He said the architects consulted with landlords and merchants about the designs and colors for the renovated storefronts in a prolonged but "very interesting and stimulating" process.
"No project that involves that many merchants and owners is hassle-free," Loomis said.
As a result of the exterior improvements, several merchants have been inspired to revamp their interiors, among them Fred Jackson, a delicatessen owner who put in a new cold case and other fixtures.
"Everybody says you can't recognize Fairfax now," said Jackson, who has been in business on the street since 1951. "There's more business, and you're getting people we didn't have before. We're getting people from Beverly Hills. People used to say the street was dirty, but it isn't any more."
Also, the decrepit Fairfax Theatre has been transformed into the sleekly remodeled Cineplex Odeon Fairfax Cinemas, where the $6 admission far exceeds the old ticket price of 45 cents still visible in faded letters painted high on the outside back wall.
"Glorifying the Talking Screen . . . The Place to Go," the old sign reads.
Although the look of Fairfax has changed, it will be up to individual storekeepers and landlords to maintain the new image. Hollywood-area gangs have already daubed their graffiti on newly painted walls.
"Graffiti is a problem throughout town," Yaroslavsky said. "The only way to deal with it is for the property owner to take it on himself to blot it out."