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The Great Divide : Striving to Bring Together Vastly Different Immigrant Groups, Residents Want a New Face on West Hollywood's Neglected East End

January 27, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You don't need a map to tell where one West Hollywood ends and another begins.

The western end of Santa Monica Boulevard is the flashy hub of the city's large gay community, marked by neon-blazed clubs and boutiques where sidewalks bop with partyers even on a Monday night.

Two miles east, the bright buzz gives way to a darker nightscape ruled by mumbling vagrants and transvestite hookers working the shadows of pawnshops, boarded storefronts and the fortress walls of a Warner Bros. movie studio.

If the glitzier west end bears a family resemblance to next-door Beverly Hills, the boulevard's poorer east end is the grubby-faced kin of neighboring Hollywood.

And right now a lot of folks are standing by with the scrub brush.

Residents, who blame the seedy image on neglect by City Hall, are flexing their muscles through an ambitious new group calling for old-fashioned crime-fighting. City officials, meanwhile, are promoting an economic renaissance featuring stylish stores and sidewalk cafes like those that have drawn the cappuccino crowd to the west end and Melrose Avenue, tantalizingly close to the east end.

The spotlight is revealing the neighborhood's blemishes--and its possibilities--as never before. On placid, tree-lined streets off Santa Monica Boulevard's east end, homeowners complain of break-ins and drug dealing and say they are tired of removing used condoms and syringes from their lawns.

At night many residents refuse to answer their doors. "You just don't open. You don't know who it is," said a longtime Poinsettia Place resident who once saw a badly beaten hooker dumped across the street.

Trying for a new image, residents have joined under the Alliance of Citizens for the East Side and have even stopped calling the neighborhood the east end, as it's been known.

" 'East end' sounds so demeaning," said William Senigram, a 30-year resident active in the group, known by its acronym, ACES. "It sounds more quality to call it the 'East Side.' "

Officials hope a face-lift--guided by an 80-page revitalization plan--will make people feel safer by improving lighting on streets and alleys. The plan suggests designating the area a redevelopment zone as one way to attract the kinds of businesses--from studios to restaurants--that would clean up the area's image and jump-start its economy.

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West Hollywood's poorest live in the east end--one-sixth of its residents live below the federal poverty level, a rate 1 1/2 times that of the entire city--as well as one-third of the city's seniors and most of its school-aged children.

The area, a half-square-mile of 10,000 people east of Fairfax Avenue, may be one of the Westside's more overlooked quarters. It is also one of the more unusual--a bundle of such widely contrasting faces that it stands out even amid its polyglot surroundings.

By day, babushkas trundle home groceries from any of half a dozen stores bearing Cyrillic window signs and stocking everything from black caviar to Russian film classics on video.

The boulevard is being transformed by the thousands of Soviet Jewish emigres who, during the past decade, have poured into an area long a magnet for Jewish refugees. The Russian immigrants, many of whom arrived in the recent post-perestroika years, now make up 10% of the city's population of 36,000.

Hand-labeled copies of Russian videos line the shelves at Sam's Store, a little nook whose younger customers would rather see movies with Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. On sunny days, crowds of Russian men play rummy and dominoes around picnic tables at Plummer Park--dubbed Little Gorky Park--while women play at separate tables.

Armenian businessman Leon Balasanyan had this clientele in mind when he opened Odessa Grocery on Santa Monica Boulevard on New Year's Eve. Jars of Russian walnut preserves and cherry syrup sit alongside American ketchup and mayonnaise. The cooler is stocked with Russian sausages, fish and cheeses.

"It's a Russian neighborhood," he said. "We took a chance. We'll see what happens."

American neighbors haven't picked up a taste for Russian gingerbread or pickled tomatoes yet, but they are catching on to other customs. The immigrants, many of whom don't drive, stroll once-deserted sidewalks--a habit that is encouraging longtime residents to come out of the house again.

At times it has been an uneasy detente. Officials have had to mediate disputes between local gays and Russian youths who harass them. Older newcomers, most of whom speak little or no English, remain a riddle to American neighbors who sometimes find them brusque and clannish. Some people grumble about housing subsidies and government paychecks many emigres receive.

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"They shop in Russian stores. They pay Russian mechanics. They buy produce on the streets," said David Bartlett, himself a transplant from England who has lived in West Hollywood about eight years.

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