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The Changing Face Of South Bay : Downtowns

January 04, 1987|BOB WILLIAMS | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

"When you're alone and life is making you lonely,

you can always go--DOWNTOWN.

When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems

to help, I know--DOWNTOWN.

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city,

Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty . . . .

How can you lose?

--From "Downtown," by Tony Hatch, made popular by singer Petula Clark.

1964, Welbeck Music Ltd., London

Albert Isen remembers old downtown Torrance.

Now 79, he recalls a time when the tiny business district was surrounded by open fields as far as he could see "and the weeds sometimes grew as high as the farmhouses."

His father, Jacob, started the town's first grocery in 1912, adding to the cluster of businesses already established by the pioneering Dominguez Land Co. to serve the area's growing population.

"I can remember as a small kid watching them build the hotel, brick by brick, and thinking what a big town this would be some day," said Isen, who would eventually become its mayor.

And, just as he predicted, Torrance did grow into a big town. Through the early decades of the century and into the postwar years, the farm fields and ranches steadily gave way to homes and industries. A network of railroad lines and Red Car trolleys brought customers into town from a wide area.

Community's Crossroads

Streets like Cravens, Post, El Prado and Marcelina, with their growing array of stores, offices and hotels, became known as "Downtown." It was the crossroads of the community, the center of transportation, commerce and government.

Business with the government was conducted at city hall. Lawbreakers were housed in an adjoining jail. People visited their dentist, doctor or lawyer downtown, and bought food, clothes and other provisions from the stores.

When people spoke of Torrance, they usually meant downtown. It gave identity to the community. "It really was the heart of the city," said Isen, a retired attorney who served as a councilman and mayor from 1955 to 1970. "It was the place to hold parades. You went there to do your business, or just to walk around and say hello to your friends. And it was always so quiet and friendly."

Torrance's old downtown, and many others in the South Bay and throughout the country, are still quiet and friendly.

But very few are still the heart of their cities. And they don't hold many parades there any more.

The parades, along with the customers who once thronged the historic streets, have moved on. You see them now at the new centers of business and community activity that have risen from the sprawl created by decades of expansion from the original core cities.

Shopping Malls Prosper

The unchallenged centers of retail business now are the regional shopping malls. They are the new downtowns for millions of shoppers enticed by acres of free parking, a carefully designed ambiance of spacious luxury and comfort, and a seemingly endless variety and abundance of goods.

Increased mobility and the advent of freeways made it easier for shoppers to reach the new retailing meccas, releasing "captive markets," as one planner said. And decisions such as where a freeway off-ramp would be located had devastating impact on some downtown areas of the South Bay.

Last year, about 25,000 malls built since the mid-1950s accounted for an estimated 52% of the nation's retail sales, or about $300 billion.

Much of the business left over goes to the commercial strips and mini-malls springing up on street corners and thoroughfares everywhere.

Many of downtown's traditional tenants have departed, too. Dentists, lawyers and other professionals who once hung their shingles from second-story windows in old downtown now do business in distant office towers and medical complexes.

Vitality Drained

Small manufacturers, distributors and other enterprises that once considered a downtown address vital to their success have departed to new industrial and business parks. The flight of customers and tenants left most traditional downtowns drained of vitality. With its seedy streets, sparse parking and drab, aging buildings, the typical old downtown became the bag lady of today's marketplace.

"The decay of the original downtown is an image that can be seen in cities and towns across the country," said Ken Topping, Los Angeles' city planning director. "When business goes elsewhere, the merchants left behind are faced with a fight for survival . . . and for many, it's been a losing struggle."

But Topping and other urban planners say few cities are writing off their downtowns as a lost cause. And for good reasons:

- A dying business district becomes a core of blight that spreads through surrounding neighborhoods and may, if not checked, spread decay through other parts of the city.

- Some cities, especially smaller ones that have not attracted malls or other new business, are heavily dependent on their downtowns for tax revenues.

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