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Warnings of Decay Echo Along Sunset : Business: After years of finger-pointing over the fizzled renaissance of the commercial district along the boulevard, residents and merchants seem ready to unite against blight.


Eight years ago, merchants on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park gushed optimistically about the future of the "business district."

Pioneer Market had just replaced its small 60-year-old building with an expansive new store, inspiring neighboring businesses to spruce up their sites. Nearby merchants also credited the improved Pioneer with attracting new businesses to the strip of mom-and-pop stores between Alvarado and Douglas streets.

After years of ups and downs, the Echo Park business district was finally stabilizing, the merchants said. Unfortunately, the anticipated regeneration fizzled.

Today, Echo Park's business core remains stagnant and residents complain that the area has become dirty, crime-ridden and unattractive. The debate over the reasons for the decline illustrates a longtime chasm between residents and merchants.

Residents have said it is the merchants' fault for failing to keep up their properties and shoo away drug users, drunks and other undesirables. Merchants have countered that the main reason for the decline is recessionary woes. And the situation is not helped, they say, by residents who pass them by on their way to the Glendale Galleria and other areas to shop.

Lately, however, there have been signs that both sides, fed up with the deteriorating conditions in the area, are putting aside their differences. Sunset Boulevard and other areas of Echo Park are abuzz with unified discussions on beautification and marketing.

For many, the March 31 closing of Finer's clothing store after 70 years on Sunset was the red flag signaling an urgent need for change.

The Finer family was seen as a pillar of the community, and store owner Jackie Finer Reed's decision to close the clothing store galvanized residents and merchants, especially after the news that Reed said she made the heart-wrenching choice primarily because the Sunset business district had become so shabby.

Crime, such as frequent car burglaries and loitering by drug users and alcohol abusers, scared her customers away, Reed said. And despite efforts by shop owners to shoo away vagrants, hire security guards and keep properties clean, the community in general has failed to support them, she said.

"We're not cohesive," Reed said.

Residents and merchants both said that a few key businesses--including Barragan's and Les Freres Taix restaurants and Pioneer Market, have been deeply involved in neighborhood organizations and have reinvested in the community by adding parking lots, renovating their properties and working with residents.

But many smaller businesses, hard hit by the recession, cannot afford to make such improvements, merchants said.

"The economic trend we've experienced over the last couple of years made it tough for small retail mom-and-pops to pay rent," let alone upgrade their properties, said Michael Leum, who runs Pioneer Market.

Added Bert Galvez Jr: "They're mom-and-pop and they may not be able to fork out $1,500 or $2,000 just to make the signage look nice." Galvez's family owns the Pescado Mojado restaurant chain, including an outlet at Logan Street and Sunset Boulevard.

Leum, who is president of the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, said he believes money is also the reason many smaller businesses have not paid the $85 annual fee to join the chamber. The chamber has managed to draw only about 100 members, or about a third of the businesses on the strip, Leum said.

While some residents criticize the chamber for not doing more to include and help the smaller businesses, Leum said he is trying to recruit more members. He and other larger business owners are helping organize an "Adopt-a-Business" mixer planned for the end of April and sponsored by the Echo Park Improvement Assn.

Business leaders note that language has been a key obstacle in getting some of the businesses involved. Notices of the mixer are being printed in Spanish and Korean to reach out to the many Latino and Asian business owners, Leum said.

Bok Hee Kim, owner of Hwaninae sportswear and accessory store, said the language barrier is indeed one reason she has not participated in local organizations. But she also said she hasn't felt the need to join the chamber or other community groups.

Some business owners don't realize that participating in the community will help increase business, Leum said.

"You have to be ready to continually adapt," said Leum, who said he has added Asian and Latino foods to his stock in response to the change in demographics of the area.

But Leum said residents must also help. Some have admitted they haven't shopped on Sunset Boulevard in years, opting instead to go to larger malls outside the area.

"I see a deterioration of Sunset Boulevard. Sunset is becoming a blighted area," said resident Isa-Kae Meksin. "Their stores are raunchy."

But Meksin also raised the question of whether residents were responsible for the run-down conditions of some of the stores by taking their business elsewhere. For Leum, the answer, in part, is yes.

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