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COLUMN ONE : Shoppers in Need of Stores : South Los Angeles has been tagged by businesses as a place to avoid. Customers are forced to pay higher prices and travel far to find goods that most find readily available.

ABANDONED CONSUMERS: Flight of Business From South Los Angeles. First in a series. NEXT: The Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza in South L.A. is struggling to attract tenants and shoppers.

November 24, 1991|STUART SILVERSTEIN and NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Target Stores, after blanketing Southern California over the last eight years with 73 discount outlets, has become one of the biggest retailers in the region. But you will not find the familiar Target sign with the red bull's-eye anywhere in South-Central Los Angeles or in other parts of South Los Angeles.

Vons Cos. is the biggest supermarket operator in the Southland with more than 300 stores. But in South Los Angeles, Vons has been closing supermarkets over the years and is down to two stores.

Twenty-six years after the fiery Watts riots called attention to the economic and social shortchanging of the black community, residents of South Los Angeles--now more than 1 million strong--remain abandoned consumers. They pay high prices, sometimes for shoddy merchandise, and they routinely travel long distances to find basic goods and services that most Southland consumers find readily available in their neighborhoods.

In many ways their predicament now is worse than it was in 1965. While the population of South Los Angeles has grown--and as its pockets of affluence thrive--most major retailers and other businesses keep fleeing or avoiding the largely depressed area.

As a result, there are far too few banks, supermarkets, drugstores and discount stores. Family restaurants are so scarce that when a ceremonial groundbreaking was held this month for a Denny's in Willowbrook, it rated as a news event.

Today, the area known as South Los Angeles--still the heart of the local African-American community but also home to a growing Latino population--is a diverse swatch of neighborhoods. It includes the poverty of Watts but also the prosperity of Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights. But residents and community activists say the community has been painted with a broad brush by big retailers and other marketers as an almost universally destitute, crime-ridden area that is best to avoid. Despite the development of half a dozen pioneering shopping centers over the last 12 years, and the success stories of some major retailers in the area, most of the big chains and other businesses continue to steer away.

"There are no movie houses, no roller-skating rinks," Dr. Ernest H. Smith, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, said with only the slightest exaggeration. "It's been that way since the riots, and almost nothing's been replaced," added Smith, who works with South Los Angeles community groups. "If you don't have these things, can you really call it a community? All you have are liquor stores, schools, funeral parlors and churches."

Many in the community believe that the dependence on liquor stores and other small shops has contributed to ethnic tensions because such businesses--many owned by Korean-Americans--cannot match big-store prices or provide many jobs for residents.

Retail flight from South Los Angeles "gives you only one place to shop," said Juanita Tate, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles. "People like choice, and when there isn't any choice, there's tension."

For Ruth Champ, just getting to and from the supermarket closest to her apartment on East 87th Place can be an ordeal. Champ, 69, a retired hospital worker, does not own a car.

If she needs groceries and her son is not available to drive, she walks 15 minutes to the bus stop at Manchester Avenue and Main Street. If she is lucky, she gets picked up quickly. But sometimes, Champ said, overcrowded buses keep passing her stop and she must wait more than an hour for a ride. And, after all that, Champ often cannot find an open seat and has to stand.

Knowing that she may face the same difficulties on the way home, Champ shops carefully at her local supermarket, an ABC store. "I can't carry big five-pound bags of flour or sugar. I have to get two- or three-pound bags, and they don't last long," she said.

"The walk is bad enough to the bus stop," added Champ, who had hip-replacement surgery several years ago. "That's why I don't get many things. And I go only when I really have to go" to the store.

"I don't feel too good about it," Champ said. "I think we should have other stores here. Lots of times, you could shop around. Sometimes different stores have different things. Maybe Ralphs has sugar for $1.29, and ABC has it at a different price. If it (another store) was close by, you could get there."

Probably the most visible retail chains still doing business in South Los Angeles are Boys supermarkets and its sister stores, Viva and ABC. Frequently criticized for charging customers allegedly excessive prices, these chains also are praised for serving South Los Angeles extensively.

Other mass merchants ranging from Payless ShoeSource to K mart also serve the community, along with such fast-food chains as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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