They celebrated a victory Wednesday on South San Pedro Street, directly across from the Thankful Missionary Baptist Church and next door to the Watson Bros.' hand carwash.
Daniel Whang's new O-Matic Laundromat rose from the ashes of his Ma's Liquor, a store that had burned down at 89th Street and San Pedro in the 1992 riots.
As victories go, the opening of a laundry normally doesn't register that high on the public attention scale. And no one at Wednesday's opening--city officials, bankers, representatives from redevelopment groups or community activists--tried to portray the new laundry as an economic panacea for South-Central Los Angeles.
And there were certainly skeptics who wished the $750,000 venture well but doubt that the business makes economic sense except as a money-losing tax write-off.
But in a community where the concentration of liquor stores has long been seen as tangible evidence of malign neglect, finding the money to convert a liquor store to a laundry is an important triumph, however symbolic.
"It's beautiful," Sylvester Watson, who has run the carwash next door since 1957, said of the new building. He said he was sorry to see Whang's liquor store destroyed because Whang "helped people when they didn't have money. He treated people like they \o7 wanted\f7 to be treated. I'm so glad to have him back."
The parking area in front of the laundry was decorated with bouquets of balloons that were later handed out to toddlers who were brought over from the Green Meadows preschool across the street. And Pepe Garibay and his Mariachi Pueblo Nuevo serenaded guests who snacked on hors d'oeuvres served by members of block clubs on 91st and 92nd streets.
"This is a day of celebration," said Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, but the question for Jae Yul Kim, president of the Korean American Grocers' Victims Assn., was whether the new business would generate enough cash flow to be viable.
"I don't know if he'll succeed, but I hope that he does," said Kim, whose group is made up of merchants whose businesses were destroyed during the riots. "We don't know about this kind of business."
He said Whang, who still owns a liquor store in the San Fernando Valley, can use the laundry as a tax write-off if it loses money. Unlike Whang, he said, most of his 177 members "have to survive from one business."
Whang conceded that the numbers associated with his new business leave him worried. He has a $350,000 disaster recovery loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and a $300,000 loan from the Community Financial Resources Center, a nonprofit organization of bankers, city agencies and community organizations.
The city waived $130,000 in sewage hookup fees for his 56 washing machines, and he has put $100,000 of his own money into the business conversion.
But he was faced with difficult choices, he said. After the riots, a City Council program discouraged rebuilding of liquor stores, and liquor license renewals became very difficult to obtain.
"If I had given up the liquor store and abandoned the property, I don't make anything," he said. Insurance covered only $200,000 of the $700,000 loss, he said.
Suddenly his mood brightened to match that of the festive occasion.
"It's OK," he said. "I'm optimistic. If I worry too much, I can't do anything."
He said he doesn't expect to realize a profit from the store and will be happy if the business can cover his $6,000-a-month overhead. If that happens, he said, he will have $300,000 in equity after six years.
Whang said the waiver of the sewage hookup fee was an important reason he chose to build a laundry, but he added, "My main reason for a laundry is that it is a proper business at that location."
The new laundry symbolizes how a community of African Americans and Latinos in South-Central, a Korean American merchant and the business conversion program run by the Korean Youth and Community Center can work together in a way that benefits them all, said Karen Bass, executive director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment.
Bass' organization has spearheaded recent efforts to combat the proliferation of liquor stores in South-Central Los Angeles. There are about 500 liquor stores in an area bounded by the Santa Monica Freeway, Imperial Highway, Alameda Street and La Brea Avenue, Bass said. Before the riots, there were about 700, she said, adding that 200 were destroyed and 25 have been rebuilt.
She recognizes that only so many laundries can be built, but that there are other alternatives to liquor stores.
"Our community needs so many things--restaurants, dry cleaners, movie theaters . . . on and on," she said Wednesday. "I want to see this area look like West L.A. I shouldn't have to drive to West L.A. to go to dinner."