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Friday Night's Live on Myrtle

Downtown Monrovia's weekly street festival draws thousands to a genuine, intimate-scale city walk. Merchants' next goal is to bring people out the other nights of the week.

June 25, 1996|JANE SPILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The liveliest activity on Myrtle Avenue in 1974 went on among the crowd that gathered in the liquor store parking lot to drink and gamble. Stores were boarded up; the vacancy rate was 30% to 40%.

Shopping malls had sucked the customers out of downtown Monrovia and left it to decay.

Now on Friday nights, Dave Gayman, who owns Valley Hardware and Variety, is waging war against the malls--staging what he calls "the Show." From 5 to 9 p.m., merchants barricade the main street in this city of 38,000 people and put on the Family Festival, billed as the largest weekly street festival in California.

Gayman cruises the street and assesses the crowd--about 5,000--fewer than he would have expected if rain clouds weren't threatening. Delighted children bounce in an inflated room and ride ponies. They are spread along among farm animals in a petting corral.

Farther up the street the "arts and crafters" sell their work. Food vendors and a farmers market complete the northern end, and musicians wander the avenue. On a side street, dancers are learning the tango.

Gayman uses a walkie-talkie to check in with his lieutenants up and down the street, says hello to the fire chief and a couple of City Council members, and cracks a joke with police officers in Bermuda shorts eating barbecue at a picnic table.

Founded in 1885, Monrovia was once the center of business for the farms and ranches of the San Gabriel Valley. By 1974, shoppers had been enticed away by regional shopping malls such as Santa Anita Fashion Park, which had opened nearby.

Around this time, the city began the long process of reinventing itself.

"We really needed to start the economic engine running in our city," says Mayor Bob Bartlett, a former Monrovia High School football star who was elected to the City Council that year. The council hired staff with economic development expertise and began rejuvenating downtown.

In 1977-78 the council spent $1 million to redesign Myrtle with wide sidewalks, seating and greenery. The street was reduced to one lane each way, and blocks alternated between angled and parallel parking to slow down traffic. Property owners started removing 1950s facades that covered old brick buildings and the area began to take on an old-town look.

Zoning was changed to shrink the commercial area from about 20 blocks to 12, a size the town could support.

Anchors for downtown were created using industrial zoning on the south end close enough so workers could walk to lunch. On the north end, the city assembled eight acres, closed a street and persuaded a supermarket to open in 1984.

Gayman and his wife bought the hardware store in 1988. Then the recession hit. She now runs the store while he works at another job.

" 'The Show' is not an inoculation against recession, but I shudder to think what it would have been like without [it]," Gayman says. Half of the crowd at the weekly festival comes from out of the area, lured by extensive promotion paid for by the merchants.

After five years, the Family Festival has become one of the defining features of Monrovia, and a major reason it was given the All-American City award in 1995 by the National Civic League.

The next goal for merchants is to try to get people downtown every night of the week. A movie theater chain has signed a letter of intent for a 12-screen multiplex to open by next May. Gayman says a lot of people fear that it's going to destroy downtown, but "you have to swim in shark-infested waters--when the malls have theaters, you have to follow the trend."

In a sea of impersonal and sterile shopping malls, Myrtle Avenue on Friday night is the real thing--a living, intimate-scale city walk with free parking and no chain stores or glitz. And it's not all about shopping.

Mayor Bartlett says he goes to watch people.

"The problem in America is people don't know their neighbors, and their neighbors don't know them," he says. "People need to get out and feel free to walk and be part of life. If we don't create that atmosphere, it won't happen."

Public Places writer Jane Spiller welcomes news about places of interest. Contact her c/o Next L.A. or by e-mail at jane.spiller@latimes.com

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