Is this any way to greet a customer?
At the Kenneth Hahn Plaza in Willowbrook, a force of about 15 full-time, baton-carrying security guards patrol the grounds, watching out for potential troublemakers. A six-foot-high, wrought-iron fence--equipped with infrared motion detectors to thwart would-be fence hoppers--defends the perimeter.
And if anyone gets caught shoplifting or purse snatching, they can be thrown into a holding tank right in the middle of the shopping center.
Welcome to retailing, South Los Angeles-style.
As violence soars in the nation's inner cities, it's no small task for retailers in areas such as South Los Angeles to attract customers and give them a feeling of safety. Lots of merchants--and customers--do their business elsewhere, if they have the option.
But among the shopkeepers, developers and chain retailers that serve South Los Angeles, many have struck back against crime by turning their places of business into urban fortresses.
Despite isolated complaints, business owners and shoppers alike generally say that tight security is a must.
"When customers park in that parking lot, they say they know their hubcaps will still be there," said O. Robert Benson, K mart's regional manager for Southern California, referring to his store at the fenced-in Vermont-Slauson Shopping Center.
"It's isn't always that way out on the street."
Forest Gipson, who works at the American Barber College across the street from the Vermont-Slauson plaza and occasionally shops there, agreed. "In this area, crime is a regular event," he said.
Manhattan Beach-based Alexander Haagen Co., which manages the Hahn and Vermont-Slauson community shopping centers, has gained a national reputation as a pioneer in developing retailing sites in the inner city. Its other South Los Angeles developments are the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center in Watts and the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza, a regional mall serving the more prosperous, predominantly black neighborhoods to the west.
One of the trademarks of all of the Southside Haagen developments is the elaborate security.
Police or sheriff's substations are housed at all three of the community shopping centers, and the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza takes it one step further: Included in the mall is a full-fledged Los Angeles Police Department station built by Haagen where more than 200 officers are based.
The redevelopment of the mall in the late 1980s inspired the founding of a community group, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Network, whose members were worried about such things as whether the security fence would be a neighborhood blight. "Initially, I was worried that it would look like a prison, and who wants to shop in a prison?" said Adrienne Mayberry, co-founder of the community group.
But, Mayberry said, the concern about appearances was unwarranted. She said that the landscaping installed beside the fence by the developers successfully turned it into an attractive feature.
Andrew J. Natker, a project developer for Haagen, says he knows all too well how dangerous life can be in the neighborhoods surrounding his shopping centers: A customer was murdered last year, half a block from the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center in Watts, carrying home a bag of groceries. "When you're outside that fence, you're vulnerable," Natker said.
One of the few remaining critics of the Haagen approach to security is Danny Bakewell, a partner in three Southside shopping centers and president of the Brotherhood Crusade charity.
"You don't find fences in West Los Angeles, you don't find fences in Cerritos and in other areas that aren't predominantly black," he said. "It sends out a message of the worst order. It sends out a message that we have to be fenced in."
So why do Bakewell and his partners employ armed security guards at their big Compton Towne Center shopping plaza? It's a reflection of "the reality of the world we live in today," he said.
But not everyone these days is beefing up security. At the Haagen shopping centers, guards recently stopped carrying guns after the developer decided it wasn't necessary. Instead, they carry Mace and batons.
Food 4 Less Supermarkets--owner of South Los Angeles' Boys, Viva and ABC chains--installed electronic theft detection equipment at half of its stores, but then decided against putting it into its remaining markets. George Golleher, president of Food 4 Less, said the benefits of the extra security were outweighed by the embarrassment caused to customers by false alarms.
Still, particularly for the owners of small shops outside of secured centers, crime is a constant threat. The owner of a South-Central food shop--who asked not to be identified out of fear of being harassed--said that nearly every week, "a lot of kids come in and take things and run away. . . . We can do nothing. When we're busy, they come in and take everything."
Shortly after the business opened four years ago, he said, thieves broke in at night through the back door and looted the store. Now the door is protected by a series of five metal gates, preventing further break-ins.
Even with the best security measures, however, it seems to take a lot of heart to survive as a retailer in the grittier parts of South Los Angeles.
"Everything in this world is a risk," said Chima Ndupu, manager of the Payless ShoeSource store at Manchester Avenue and Avalon Boulevard.
"You don't let crime stop you from doing what you want to accomplish. . . . If you're determined to make it, you don't let anything stop you."