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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Pacific Blvd. Beckons to Latinos : Shoppers Spark Revival of Huntington Park District

October 16, 1995|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodeo Drive, Melrose Avenue and the Third Street Promenade may have more renown, but for many Latinos, Pacific Boulevard is the place to shop.

Like those celebrated streets in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Pacific, in downtown Huntington Park, draws shoppers from across the region.

From as far as Riverside and Lancaster, Mexican American and Central American customers throng the 580 shops along a mile-long stretch of Pacific, which becomes Long Beach Boulevard to the south and Vernon Avenue to the west. They come to sample posole and churros at El Gallo Giro, buy $600 Stetson cowboy hats at any of half a dozen Western stores and price bouffant satin wedding gowns and communion dresses at the boulevard's bridal shops.

"Some people go to Olvera Street, but that's for tourists," said Joe Jimenez, president of the Huntington Park Chamber of Commerce. "This is for the genuine Hispanic."

By courting Latino shoppers, a dying Pacific Boulevard revived itself 15 years ago to become one of the county's main shopping destinations for Latinos. Last year, sales in the shopping district totaled nearly $87 million.

"What effect did the Hispanics have on Pacific Boulevard?" Huntington Park Mayor Thomas Jackson asks rhetorically. "The obvious answer is they saved the boulevard."

Jackson, 59, a North Carolina native who speaks not a word of Spanish himself, has spent 27 of his 39 years in the city as either a councilman or mayor.

When he moved to Huntington Park in 1956, Pacific Boulevard was a major shopping district for southeast Los Angeles County. Shoppers came from Orange County, Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley.

"We used to have every kind of store known to man and at one time," he recalled. "We had every car dealership you might want."

But the boulevard began to stagnate in the late 1960s as shoppers deserted the city streets for air-conditioned malls. In the 1970s, city officials decided the boulevard--indeed, the entire city--needed refurbishing.

Over the next 20 years, the city spent millions on more than 100 redevelopment projects. An industrial park went up, homes were rehabilitated, condominiums and apartment complexes were built and Pacific Boulevard spruced up with half a dozen two-story commercial buildings.

"It went through a decline and a rebirth," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "Like the phoenix, it was reborn in a completely different way."

The redevelopment proceeded while the population was shifting, from 29,000 residents in the 1960s, nearly all of them Anglo, to 75,000 residents, 96% of them Latino, Jackson said. The boulevard changed to appeal to its new residents.

"There wasn't a master plan, it just happened," said Jackson, who has operated a Huntington Park florist shop for 25 years. "Businesses cater to who walks in the door."

Today, the boulevard pulses to a Latino beat. The shopping courtyards bear names such as Fiesta Plaza and Margarita Plaza. Street vendors peddle cucumber spears and coconut slices down the street from the three movie houses showing first-run films such as "Species," "Showgirls" and "Seven"--all with Spanish subtitles.

Salsa and ranchera music blare from stereo shops and clothing stores. The language of business on the boulevard is Spanish, even for merchants of Middle Eastern and Korean descent.

Alberto Arellano, 32, a Long Beach construction worker, strolled the boulevard on a recent Sunday with his pregnant wife, Marta, and their two sons. The visit meant a three-hour, round-trip bus ride, but Arellano said the family's monthly visits are worth it to savor the street's atmosphere.

"There are a few stores like this in Long Beach, but they don't have the Mexican crowds and the prices are not as cheap as here," Arellano said.

Pacific Boulevard features two Latino nightclubs, one that offers norteno bands on one floor and Mexican rock 'n' roll on the other.

In addition, Pacific has drawn specialty businesses that appeal to Latinos. Many of the city's more than 125 bilingual medical clinics have offices along the boulevard. More than a dozen bridal shops that sell communion and baptismal dresses are clustered along the street, as are a score of Western shops catering to Latinos who favor Banda -style cowboy boots and attire.

One Western store operator, Monir Awada, Lebanon-born co-owner of Tres Hermanos, opened a Levi's outlet in the city 14 years ago. But in 1985, he changed the store name and merchandise to appeal to his Latino customers. Now he runs eight stores with 100 employees in Southern California, he said.

Jimenez, manager of the boulevard's Woolworth's store, said he increased profit by appealing to Latinos. He stocks tamarindos and barrilitos, Mexican candies, and replaced the typical Woolworth's bologna sandwiches with burritos and tacos.

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