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Something for Everyone : Revitalized Area Serves Up Trendy Fare, but Retains Its Small-Town Charm

SHOPPING SCENES: A guide to Whittier's Uptown district. One of a series.


Not everything about the 1987 Whittier earthquake was bad news. Just ask those who had been been trying for 10 years to shutter an adult movie theater in the center of the city's historic Uptown district, a family neighborhood primed for renovation. When the Earth shook, the building crumbled and the problem was solved.

Six years later, Uptown Whittier--a 16-block-square area anchored by Greenleaf and Philadelphia avenues--is shaping up as a fashionable enclave of smart restaurants and trendy retail shops. Almost 70% rebuilt, the revitalized area still attracts an older audience. But thanks to new tenants such as the Rocky Cola Cafe (a Hard Rock wanna-be), and the installation of a conventional triplex movie house (which replaced the Pussycat theater), the district now attracts younger shoppers as well.

"Now if only they would dedicate one of the screens to foreign films, I'd be in absolute heaven," says Linda McClellan, a longtime Whittier resident.

Despite all the new construction, Uptown hasn't lost its small-town charm. Many of the area's turn-of-the-century bungalows remain standing (although some have been converted into storefronts). The First Christian Church (circa 1923) towers over one end of Greenleaf. At the other end is the Whittier Museum, which houses an exhibit of First Lady inaugural gowns, including one worn by Pat Nixon, wife of Whittier's most famous one-time resident, former President Richard M. Nixon.

Located between those two markers is the official center of town (where Greenleaf and Philadelphia intersect) and there sits a testimonial to the city's Quaker beginnings. Whittier was founded by Quakers in 1886 and continues to be the only Quaker settlement west of the Mississippi.

"There are still a number of Quakers in the area," notes Ed Henning, an urban-planning consultant and president of the Uptown Whittier Assn. "Fifteen years ago you could still see them walking around in their black garments. You don't see that anymore except on Arbor Day or at Whittier's Uptown Festival in mid-July."

In fact, most stores are still on the Quakers' time schedule and close promptly at 7 p.m. "When it got dark everyone was supposed to be home," says Henning. Restaurants and some of the newer boutiques, however, do keep longer hours, particularly on weekends when foot traffic is heaviest.

On a typical day in Uptown, you will find young couples having afternoon tea on the outdoor patio at J.P. Adams, an interior design concern that sells contemporary home furnishings and accessories. Nearby, a group of teen-agers in the latest hip-hop gear hangs out at Sub-Culture, a funky sportswear shop known for pricey fashion labels (Drawls, Bomb Factory) more common on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Young skateboarders spend their afternoons at the Gold Coast Skate & Surf shop. Or sometimes groups will gather at the area's two hip record stores, Groove Stop and Fast Lane. However, Uptown's oldest record shop, Lovell's, offers a more eclectic mix of foreign and domestic music, "and their cable TV commercials are a scream," notes McClellan.

There are a couple of stores in the neighborhood that cater to children. Oki Doki sells one-of-a-kind handmade dresses ($60 to $100) and two-piece suits ($49 to $65) created especially for the store. The Wee Loft Toyshoppe features the usual assortment along with many European toys.

Restaurants include Dattilos, for fancy Italian dining, El Patio for inexpensive Mexican food, Rocky Cola for burgers, and Mimo's for coffee and espresso. A quick walk up Greenleaf and you will also find a new 99-cent store, a Bookland book shop, the Uptown Cyclery & Sport bicycle shop, Greenleaf Art Gallery, Monte's Camera store (owned by former Whittier Mayor Monte Wicker) and Mason's, a 30-year-old bakery.

Although Henning believes the neighborhood still lacks fashion diversity, there is actually a good cross-section of styles. For instance, the merchandise at Alter Ego and Vintage Melrose--including a broad assortment of used denim jeans, flannel shirts and Doc Marten shoes--is a lot nicer than much of what you'd expect to find at other vintage clothing stores. And the prices, from $5 (jewelry and hats) to $85 (rayon dresses) are certainly comparable. A number of young regulars at these two discount outlets accessorize their purchases with over-shirts, caps and jewelry from Sub-Culture and Gold Coast.

But Treasure Chest Militaria has the best selection of unusual vintage merchandise. The 3,000-square-foot store is technically an Army/Navy surplus shop carrying such unique items as motorcycle sidecars ($6,000), dummy machine guns ($600 to $800) and even a running 1943 war-time Volkswagen ($15,000.) Fashionwise, this is a great place to find such rarities as East German border guard jackets ($25 and up), jodhpurs ($15), full dress uniforms ($45) and even boots ($45). Many of these items are beautifully tailored of fine heavy wool and are still in perfect condition.

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