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COVER STORY : Unsung Attractions : Group Promotes Ethnic Enclaves as Tourist Destinations in a Drive to Reap a Bigger Slice of the Billions Spent by L.A. Visitors

August 06, 1995|Leslie Berestein

A low-lying galaxy of neon signs twinkled overhead as Maryanna Watson of Houston, Tex., paused for a cigarette along Universal Studios' pristine CityWalk.

As she waited for relatives to emerge from a gleaming gift shop nearby, the 50-something grandmother went over her one-week Los Angeles itinerary: Disneyland, Universal Studios, Westwood Village, Knott's Berry Farm, Marilyn Monroe's grave, and stars' homes in Beverly Hills and Brentwood.

But would she see the Watts Towers or the murals of East Los Angeles, hear live jazz in Leimert Park or stop for lunch in Koreatown?

"No, not at all," Watson said, shaking her head. "Not at all. I have no interest in seeing any of that. The pictures I have of these neighborhoods are of gangs and crime and slums. I mean, is there another side?"

Until recently, the culturally rich "other side" of Los Angeles' ethnic neighborhoods--including East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles and Koreatown--has been largely ignored by the local tourism industry, which has traditionally presented the city as a palm-lined playground for the rich and famous, dotted with theme parks and populated by suntanned blondes.

To many visitors--following mainstream tourist maps, advice given them by travel agencies and tour operators, and their own fear stemming from negative images formed while watching the news--vast areas of the city are still perceived as little more than dangerous wastelands to be avoided en route to Disneyland or the beach.

These perceptions can be changed, however, according to a coalition of more than 30 labor leaders, community activists, business owners and local artists known as the Tourism Industry Development Council.

The nonprofit, privately funded group came together with seed money from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union shortly after the 1992 riots, when the city's tourism industry plunged into a two-year slump as images of burning buildings obscured prospective visitors' notions of fun in the sun.

The coalition has challenged the local tourism industry to mitigate some of the damage done to the city's image by promoting the sights, sounds and tastes in the urban neighborhoods of the "real" Los Angeles. Such a move, the group reasons, could dispel negative stereotypes while drawing tourist dollars into ethnic communities that have until now missed out on the action.

"One of the most interesting things about Los Angeles has to do with the people who live here," said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of the group. "They have a fascinating history, and there is a market for history, social context and interesting cultural issues. It's much better and safer for people to see the whole picture, negative and positive."

So far, the coalition has had some success. Last summer, it presented a series of guided tours during the World Cup soccer finals, taking foreign and American journalists through East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Koreatown, Pico-Union and Hollywood to see the sights and learn about each neighborhood's historical and cultural identity.

The tours caught the attention of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, once criticized by the coalition for ignoring inner-city attractions in its tourist literature. Bureau officials granted the coalition $12,000 to produce a 15-minute video of things to do and see in the city's ethnic communities, compiled from footage shot during the tours.

Titled "On Any Day," the video was released late last spring and is being distributed by the bureau to tour operators and convention planners worldwide.

"I think they were sort of floored by all the press coverage we got," Janis-Aparicio said. "They sent a few people on the tours, and I think they were intrigued by some of the potential they saw. That was the clincher--that's what got 'em."

A major part of East Los Angeles' tourism potential involves the area's myriad rainbow-hued murals, which cover everything from the walls of busy stores along historic Brooklyn Avenue--once home to the city's first Jewish community--to the housing projects of Estrada Courts, one of the largest and oldest collections of mural art in the city.

Walking along the crowded, seven-block stretch of Cesar E. Chavez Avenue that makes up the historic Brooklyn Avenue corridor, Tomas Benitez of Self-Help Graphics--a gallery and workshop that is the hub of the Eastside art scene--pointed out different murals along the way, calling out the names of well-known local muralists like a museum guide pointing out the works of old masters in the Louvre.

"This one here is by Paul Botello," he said, referring to an elaborate piece at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Soto Street, then directing his finger at another colorful wall across the street. "And that one over there, that older one, was done by the East Los Streetscapers."

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