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A Bitter Battle on Home Turf: Garment Plant Is Not Welcome

October 25, 1987|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

To the mavens of economic growth, it seemed like serendipity.

Here was the State of California and the City of Los Angeles, trying to lure industry into a depressed neighborhood south of downtown. Move here, create jobs and we'll give you good financing and tax breaks, the government said.

And here was the Kluger Company Inc., a 49-year-old family owned apparel business eager to expand from its garment district quarters. The Klugers bought into the neighborhood even before learning about the benefits.

Then they found out they weren't welcome. The problem was that what officialdom sees as an economic boon, many neighborhood residents see as a menace: A garment factory? In our neighborhood?

Among Los Angeles' recent development controversies, the Kluger Company's bid to move 17 blocks south hardly matches the scale of the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester or the Westside Pavilion, where affluent residents have waged battles with powerhouse corporations. Still, the conflict shows how politics and planning are played out in Los Angeles these days, engaging heavyweight questions about the city's future.

Arena for Conflict

In this case, in a nameless, mishmash neighborhood northeast of USC, working class Latino residents are doing battle with one of the city's oldest industries. The business forces, heralding economic growth and the need for jobs, have gained the support of key officials such as Councilman Gilbert Lindsay.

But it is the increasingly aggressive community activists, promoting the preservation of neighborhoods and housing, who have gained the upper hand. After losing a 3-2 vote of the city Planning Commission, the Klugers are now on hold.

Ready to Fight

"We're going to fight anybody who tries to come in," said Cecilia Nunez, a life-long resident of the area. Nunez, 36, is a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Chapter of the South Central Organizing Committee, which has organized opposition to the garment factory. Nunez and others fear that the Klugers' factory may merely be the forerunner of more industry to come.

Ben Kluger doesn't get it. Just when he decides to return to the old neighborhood, the old neighborhood, it seems, doesn't want him. Generations before the powers of government deemed the "Central City Enterprise Zone" into existence, this early 1900s neighborhood was Ben Kluger's turf. One afternoon in 1927, when he was 13, Ben went uptown and got a job as delivery boy for an apparel company.

He had found his life's work. At age 23, Kluger scraped together $582 and went into business for himself. Every day he hustled about the garment district, buying leftover thread, buttons, ribbon and linings from the "big jobbers," and selling to the small companies. "To make people think I had inventory, I used to take empty boxes and keep them on my shelves. A lot of them." That first year, his business made $4,000.

Today, at 73, Ben Kluger is a self-made millionaire, the result of 49 years of steady growth, he says. "It's like a bucket of water. You can put in a drop at a time, but eventually you fill the bucket." Kluger, who now lives in the Hollywood Hills, still works full-time at his son Lance's side--after a morning five-mile jog.

Sells Synthetic Fiber

The Kluger Company of the 1980s is a purveyor of Pellon, a synthetic fiber used to reinforce collars, cuffs and linings. The small complex near 11th and Maple streets includes a warehouse, offices and a "fusing department" where adhesive-backed Pellon is heat-pressed on to precut fabric. About 80 women work here, almost all of whom are immigrants from Latin America. Workers' pay ranges from $3.35 an hour to more than $6 an hour. They have no medical benefits but the room is clean and air-conditioned. It is the biggest operation of its kind in Los Angeles, the Klugers say, catering to some 180 client companies.

Limited by space, the company is running up to five days late in a business where, as Lance Kluger put it, "Everyone needs it today." They envisioned expansion of the work force from about 115 to 200, most of whom would start at minimum wage.

The Klugers studied their options. One possibility was moving to Orange County. The rent would be cheaper, but the company would have to keep its trucks on the road more and doubtless would have to hire new employees. "Most of the people working here now," Lance Kluger said, "won't be able to follow us down."

They also looked at other buildings in the garment district, but none was suited to their operation; building their own seemed for the best. Then in 1985 they found an eight-parcel property at Maple Avenue and 28th Street zoned for manufacturing and occupied by a construction yard and six old homes. The families who lived there were evicted and the site cleared to make way for a planned 60,000-square-foot factory.

"I told Lance, 'It's like coming home,' " Ben Kluger said.

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