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REMAINS OF THE DAZE : From the Ashes of '92 Come Things as Good, if Not Better, Than Before

August 28, 1994|Jonathan Gold

The best strip mall in the Wilshire District is a tremendous place. Nearly a block long, it sprouted from the site of the local Chevy dealership almost a decade ago and is as wildly multicultural as the community it serves. I tend to like strip malls for a selfish reason--entry-level capitalism in Los Angeles produces some pretty good ethnic restaurants.

But even by high midtown standards, this Vermont Avenue mall has almost everything a human being could desire: a chain record store with a decent rap selection, a martial-arts dojo, a Guatemalan fast-food place specializing in the snacks called chapines , a Filipino supermarket where you can buy purple yam paste, fresh rabbit fish or a jar of shredded mutant coconut. If you want to convince your friends that you went to the Doobie Brothers reunion tour last year, or even that you like Foreigner a whole lot, a clothing store sells surplus concert tees.

Not too long ago, the strip mall was a smoking, twisted, looted hulk that seemed for a week or so to be the backdrop for half the newscasters in America--it was apparently the most picturesque wreckage within 10 minutes of Hollywood.

I lived so close then that when the mall burned that April, I smelled the acrid smoke and imagined I could feel the heat of the flames. The night after the looting, the center was dark, except for the small Salvadoran cafe toward the center that improbably reopened before the embers had a chance to cool.

It has been almost 2 1/2 years since the fires that swept Los Angeles were extinguished, and give or take a Dr. Dre song here or there, a few faded Korean-language wall posters advertising brotherhood boxing matches, and a surfeit of the sort of journalism that tends to use the word "heal" a lot, you don't hear that much about them anymore. (For antic reasons, I did a computer search to find recent newspaper juxtapositions of the words "riot" and "healing"; several hundred citations popped up.)

When you drive down Central or Western avenues, it is already difficult to distinguish the scars of the '92 rebellion from those left by the events of '65, and sometimes impossible to remember precisely what buildings, what five-and-dimes or liquor stores, may have been condensed into vacant lots and smoke stains. And like the advanced Terminator cyborg, most of the corner mini-malls seem to have cloned themselves from a single liquid scrap of metal. When they finally started to rebuild the strip mall on Vermont, the center rose swiftly, a bit cruder in style than the condo-nautical architecture the building was born with, but still anchoring the neighborhood.

Although I probably passed the strip mall a dozen times a day for years, I find it hard to remember precisely what was there before. Was that always a Korean billiard hall on the top level? Was it before the fires that the Thai restaurant replaced the takeout place improbably specializing in a particular kind of red-hot popular in Rochester, N.Y., or was it afterward? Did what is now a computer store once house a travel agency, and did the service that specializes in delivering packages to Manila once specialize in sending them to San Salvador instead?

I hung out at the strip mall for a couple of days last week, and the surprise is not how much the place has changed, but how little; how vigorous the center remains. At 3 on a Tuesday afternoon, the fishmongers hondle in three different languages, and the parking lot is nearly full. The Manila-style seafood grill is gone, along with the halal Pakistani place that served the best minced-beef kebabs in the city, but there is a new Filipino grill--good roast pork--to go along with the all-night Korean greasy spoon, a busy paint store where the dry cleaner used to be, and just a few more security guards than before, sipping coffee from paper cups and fidgeting in the midsummer heat.

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