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The Missing Ingredient: Customers : Bakery and Other Businesses Near Florence and Normandie Are Struggling Since the Riots

August 21, 1994|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the porch of her bakery on Florence Avenue, Christine Van Koll watches anxiouslyas potential customers zoom by in their vehicles.

"This is a major street and people fly by like crazy," said the owner of Chris Cakes and Catering, a few blocks from Normandie Avenue. "After the civil unrest, every time we mention Florence, no one wants to come."

Florence and Normandie, the intersection that became known worldwide as the flash point of the 1992 riots, has also become a symbol of suffering small businesses in the area.

The change is evident in the number of storefronts no longer open around the area. Van Koll counted on her fingers as she listed the surrounding businesses torched in 1992: Finest Neighborhood Market, George's Louisiana Chicken, Spartans.

And for those that managed to survive the riots, the future looks grim. Van Koll and other business owners in the area say they are on the verge of economic ruin, despite well-publicized campaigns calling for revitalization of the area. Excessive borrowing and picking up odd jobs to make ends meet have become the norm for some of the small merchants who have long since seen their businesses at their prime.

"Unfortunately, those of us that made it through (the riots) are not going to survive," Van Koll said. Merchants "have managed to borrow, beg or steal to make money and survive."

Business owners and financial analysts in the area say there appears to be little relief in sight.

"I have seen no concentrated efforts to redevelop the Florence-Normandie area," said Roberto Barragan, executive director of the Community Financial Resource Center, which started offering loans in October.

The Resource Center, which has an office south of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, provides loan assistance and money management at no cost for residents and businesses in South-Central. Barragan said the only financial assistance area merchants have received has been through the federal Small Business Administration, whose loans the center helps disburse.

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"Those that did survive and had a healthy business received SBA loans in '92," Barragan said. "Some businesses are still trying to build after the riots and they come to us. But since SBA requires them to use property as collateral, it's often difficult."

Barragan cited reduced property values since the riots, destroyed property, existing debt and an "area that's not consumer friendly" as factors that have contributed to the area's plight.

City officials said another reason for the snail-paced recovery in the area is a concerted effort by the community to rebuild a better economic district than the liquor-store-dominated area it was. There are 19 liquor stores between Manchester and Slauson avenues along Western and Normandie avenues. The closest supermarket in that sector is a Boys' Market at Manchester and Western.

"Right now the community is in the process of determining what Florence-Normandie is going to look like," said Margaret Diop, planning deputy for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the Florence-Normandie area. "Through redevelopment we want to create a source of revenue in the area to bring about community-based economic development."

Diop said the Western Corridor redevelopment project will probably be adopted sometime next year. The commercial corridor is bounded roughly by Vernon Avenue to the north, Florence and 80th Street to the south, Van Ness Avenue to the east and Vermont Avenue to the west.

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This project is one of four recovery study areas in Ridley-Thomas' 8th District that focuses on revitalizing the main commercial corridors damaged during the riots, Diop said.

But business owners in the Florence-Normandie area fear that the dwindling customer base spurred by the slow economy and negative perceptions of the area means they won't survive long enough to see any plans for economic revitalization come to fruition.

"Since the riots, people are afraid to come to the neighborhood . . . or people don't have money," said Isabel Boyce, owner of Boyce and Howard Swap Shop, which she has operated for 18 years down the street from Chris Cakes. "There's been a great change. People don't come by like they used to. "

Van Koll said neighboring businesses that remained standing after the riots have consistently asked her if she knows where they can secure loans. Others, like Boyce, asked if they could work for her. But since 1992, Van Koll said she has had to reduce her staff from five full-time employees to two part-timers.

"We were thinking it was going to get better in 1993, but everyone is complaining that this year is the worst of all," Van Koll said. "Business for me has dropped 50% to 60% since 1992."

In an effort to survive, Van Koll has started offering breakfasts and lunches on delivery to office workers outside the area.

A native of South-Central, Van Koll started her bakery with her husband, Frank, 16 years ago from her house kitchen. Then she sold baked goods from a small space on Van Ness and Florence until she moved to her current location at the corner of 7th Street.

"Now we have to think about relocating or sit here and die," she said. "I may have to go into something completely outside of bakery."

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