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REBUILDING LOS ANGELES : Picking Up the Pieces : Riot Zone Businesses Struggle to Reopen and Reclaim Customers

May 26, 1992|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bung Ik Lee considered himself lucky that his Flaire One Hour Cleaners in the Crenshaw District was merely stripped of customers' clothes during the three frightening days of looting, burning and mayhem in Los Angeles.

It took Lee just 24 hours after the disturbances stopped to reopen his dry-cleaning shop. But some customers already had defected to other cleaners. And even loyal patrons had fewer items to bring in--vandals had stolen much of their clothing from Lee's shop.

What's more, Lee, who moved to Los Angeles from South Korea in 1973, found some people in the mostly black neighborhood more wary of visiting. Some feared that their clothes would be torched in further rioting. Others no longer wanted to do business with a Korean-American.

"The first weekend . . . nobody would come back," said the 52-year-old Lee, who bought the cleaners in 1978. "But I feel it is very important to reopen as soon as possible to keep our goodwill with the customer. I like my neighborhood. But I am sad and angry that we have to start all over again."

Hundreds of businesses were burned and looted in Los Angeles' violent uprising; many remain shuttered. But even for entrepreneurs such as Lee who are picking up the pieces and reopening their doors, business is far from usual in the city's riot-torn streets.

Repairing the physical damage and hanging out a new shingle, say business owners, is only the beginning of a long struggle to recapture the customer patronage and trust that many entrepreneurs have worked for years to build.

Even before the disturbances, business was not good for many inner-city shopkeepers; a sluggish economy that cut profits and threw thousands out of work saw to that.

Their recovery now is complicated by the uneven pace of rebuilding. Some stores in lightly damaged areas have attracted a stream of new customers from competitors in areas that remain crippled by riot damage. Meanwhile, businesses in harder-hit neighborhoods don't know whether to feel blessed or cursed that they have been able to quickly reopen their doors.

Restaurateur Willie Jenkins, for instance, reopened his small eatery at Vermont Avenue near Manchester Avenue as soon as power was restored on May 6.

But the lights have returned faster than customers, who have little reason to stroll past Jenkins' cafe. It is one of only about four commercial enterprises still standing along a desolate, three-block stretch of Vermont in South-Central Los Angeles that was nearly leveled by arsonists.

"The looters didn't even come in here," Jenkins said one recent afternoon. "But I've had only three customers all day today. You look around this area, with all these businesses burned, ain't nobody coming by here no more."

The frustration extends beyond business owners to consumers and local development officials who have watched the riot undo years of revitalization efforts in economically depressed parts of the city. What was a critical mass of commerce has been reduced back down to a few lonely entrepreneurs fighting for their economic lives.

"The sad part about it is that a lot of small enterprises that were able to survive the riots are going to be hard hit now," said Marva Smith Battle-Bey, director of the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp. "I think eventually there's going to be more interest in this area. But for people like (Jenkins), I don't think there are going to be any quick fixes."

Crises that interrupt business can be devastating for even the most successful enterprises, experts say. But for retailers without the deep pockets or advertising clout of big marketers, it is critical "to rekindle your relationship with customers as quickly as possible," said Avijit Ghosh, director of the Center of Entrepreneurial Studies at New York University.

Ghosh cited recent food give-aways by several Los Angeles grocers as smart ways to retain customers. Smaller retailers, he added, can reach out by welcoming customers into stores for coffee or contacting them by direct mail or telephone.

But even those retailers who know where their customers are face challenges.

Gilbert Ruste, owner of Allied Video on Vermont near 2nd Street, has a list of the names and addresses of most of his video rental customers. Nevertheless, he said he frequently closes early these days; few people, Ruste explained, venture out in a neighborhood where arsonists torched three nearby strip malls during the riots.

"We used to be busy until we closed at 10 p.m.," Ruste said. "But now everybody is scared to come out after 8 p.m. I was hesitant to reopen the store, because I feared something might happen again. But I don't have any other income. The rioters, they just go on with their lives and leave this (destruction behind) for the rest of the people."

A few businesses, on the other hand, appear to have benefited by quickly reopening.

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