Like many longtime merchants in Leimert Park Village, 67-year-old Rufus Martin can remember better times--times when graffiti was not a constant eyesore, when streets were clean and stores did not need iron gates to prevent merchandise from disappearing overnight.
But that was 23 years ago, before the little shopping village with the Art Deco flavor started its gradual decline.
Martin said that although many of the shop owners have just been able to make ends meet for some time, they have continued to struggle to keep their businesses afloat.
In support of that effort, about 70 merchants recently chipped in to hire a security guard to patrol the street, but the money soon ran out.
"It's been a struggle trying to get the merchants some help," Martin said. "It seemed like we were working every week to pay them (the security guards) every week."
"This week we didn't have the funds to pay them, so the guards are on vacation," he added with a wry smile.
Martin and about 100 other shop owners in the village will soon be getting some help. Through the efforts of the Los Angeles Urban League, shop owners in the village on Degnan and Leimert boulevards and 43rd Street and 43rd Place recently were given an $850,000 community development block grant with which to turn back the clock.
"What we would like to see is the community return to the way it was when there was more pride of ownership, none of the graffiti and deterioration that you see today," said Martin, a barber and owner of a building in the village with six tenants. "Most important we want the area to be a safe place to shop."
Under the grant, the collection of small businesses--beauty shops, barber shops, a neighborhood grocery, doctors offices, an art gallery, a dry cleaners--will receive a face lift.
The building facades will be repainted in coordinating colors. Signs will be removed and replaced by a uniform design for all the buildings. Awnings will be installed and security bars will be removed from the exteriors of buildings and placed inside.
Palm trees will be planted on the streets and in the parking lots behind the stores. Night security lights will be added in the parking lots. And nearby sidewalks will be widened.
"We want . . . to make the shops more attractive places," said Anne Marie Feretti, who is the project coordinator for the Urban League. "We believe that if the shops are made more appealing, then it will create jobs and increase the level of goods and services in the community."
The Urban League has other programs to assist local store owners such as low-interest loans and workshops in management. Gwen Coleman, the director of the revitalization effort for the Urban League, said that the goal is to "help the local businesses broaden their markets so that they can provide better service in the community."
Parker Anderson, director of industrial and commercial development for the city's Community Development Department, said that the Leimert Park Village project is one of 10 such programs designed to encourage economic development. "By encouraging the retention and expansion of businesses, it creates employment opportunities and maintains quality goods and services for the residents as well," he said.
Martin is optimistic about the village's future.
"I've seen it change once, I'll see it change again," recalled Martin. "More than anything else, we are going to make it a safe place, a place for people to come and walk and shop, a place for people to live without fear."