As far as Manuel Betancourt is concerned, not much changes along the blighted stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between Van Ness and Western avenues.
The neighborhood was bad before it was chosen as the test site for the most ambitious anti-graffiti campaign in city history, and it's bad now.
"Who notices? Who cares?," asked Betancourt, for 30 years the proprietor of Manuel's Barber Shop. "It doesn't make a damn bit of difference."
A month has passed since the city bused about 4,000 volunteers into Betancourt's crime-ridden neighborhood for an unprecedented weekend painting party aimed at eradicating gang graffiti along the eastern edge of Hollywood Boulevard.
For those such as Betancourt, who have witnessed the neighborhood's steep decline, the pastel paint job was nothing more than a colorful bandage placed on a gaping wound. The barber, whose sign says "Hair Skillfully Trimmed and Shaped," was so opposed that he refused to have his building included.
But for others, such as Ashod Baronian of AB Shoe Repair, the offer of free paint was a sign that the city was trying to turn the area around.
"It's very good," said Baronian, who owns a small shop in the shadow of the Hollywood Freeway. "I don't know the gang psychology. But it helps."
The idea of cleaning and repainting the entire eight-block stretch of buildings came from Stuart Haines, who heads the Mayor's Committee for Graffiti Removal, and Jim Weinberg, a Florida design consultant.
Under Weinberg's plan, buildings were recast in color-coordinated dusty pastels, such as "Aztec Gold," "Cape Cod Blue" and "Sahara Rose," then covered with an anti-graffiti coating that allows merchants to remove gang scrawlings easily with a special cleanser and a scrub brush.
Weinberg said the project transformed the area from one of hopelessness to one of pride and promise. "I feel that we really made a positive statement to the community," Weinberg said. "I was overwhelmed by the number of people who embraced the idea and the whole design concept."
Haines, who also considers the project a big success, said there have been fewer graffiti problems since the painting party.
"The area looks terrific compared to what it looked like before," Haines said. "I don't think there's any question that people realize that when you paint over graffiti, you have the best chance of keeping it off of a wall."
But Haines conceded there were problems. In the final planning stages, the project was nearly abandoned because Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, who represents the area, said that merchants and property owners did not have enough opportunity to comment.
As the May 21 start day approached, Woo refused to grant the organizers the special-events permit needed to close the street. It was only through the last-minute intervention of Mayor Tom Bradley's office that the group proceeded.
"We wanted to do something positive in (Woo's) district," Haines said. "But his office just wasn't very cooperative. You would think they would have bent over backwards to make this possible, but until the midnight hour, we did not even know if we had the go-ahead or not."
Bill Chandler, Woo's spokesman, said there were good reasons for withholding support. "We were reluctant (to grant the special-events permit) because we wanted to see more merchants involved with the project," he said. "Until we felt that the community and the property owners were behind this, there was no way that we were going to lend our support to it."
Haines, however, said the problem resulted from a simple misunderstanding. He said that most merchants were "thrilled" by the idea, despite Woo's concerns. "We found a tremendous acceptance from the merchants," said Haines, who saw the project as a bold move against the city's explosive graffiti problem. "Most of them thought this was a terrific program."
It would be difficult to envision a place with more obvious needs. The impoverished eastern edge of Hollywood Boulevard is a mishmash of pawn shops, discount stores, ethnic restaurants and repair shops set in a neighborhood so rough that many merchants bar or padlock their doors during business hours.
'Pretty Hostile Place'
Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Bob Taylor, a former Hollywood Division captain who sits on the mayor's graffiti committee, described the neighborhood as a "pretty hostile place." Neighborhood Watch patrols have helped to control runaway crime, but graffiti has always been as common as cheap jewelry.
When members of Haines' group first announced its plans for the area, they said they would transform the neighborhood. In the end, however, they were restricted by forces beyond their control.
Hollywood Heritage Inc., a nonprofit historical society, prohibited them from repainting seven historically significant buildings scattered along the eight-block stretch.