Since it opened 10 years ago, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has been as much a symbol as a retail mall.
Sitting at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, the mall owes its existence to the idea that older minority communities, threatened by neglect, can be revived by offering goods and services that residents previously had to travel several miles to find.
Although it is very close to the affluent neighborhoods of View Park, Ladera Heights and Baldwin Hills, the mall got off to a slow start. In its early years, it appeared to have more vacancies than occupied spaces.
But that early, grim picture has brightened over the years. And now, with less than two weeks left in the Christmas shopping season, mall merchants are cautiously optimistic, saying that prospects for this year look promising.
The mall "has come through some very, very hard times," said Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Commission. "Most people don't acknowledge what went on in the department store industry with mergers and familiar names disappearing."
The shopping center survived consolidation in the industry and "major economic turmoil in the community," Kyser said, referring to the economic downturn that hit Southern California in 1990 and to the 1992 riots.
Mall officials say that it is 90% occupied, and that "is strong testament to their survival capability," Kyser said. The shopping center "is sort of a metaphor of how successful the area is--the temperature indicator for that community," he said.
And the temperature appears to be rising.
A big boost came with the opening of the Magic Johnson Theatres and the foot traffic the multiscreen complex generated. Moreover, observers and residents say, the mall can only benefit when the $100-million redevelopment of an adjacent eyesore--the Santa Barbara Plaza--is completed early in the next century.
The good times were certainly evident on the day after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas shopping season traditionally begins.
One Los Angeles woman decided to stop by the plaza in search of bargains, but was unable to find a parking space. After many minutes of searching, she was finally able to park in a remote corner of the lot "that is never full."
"But it was practically full too," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I have never, in 10 years of shopping at this mall, ever seen the lot that crowded."
There was no hint of complaint in her comments. She saw the nearly full lot as a strong sign that the mall was off to a good start in the scramble for consumers' Christmas dollars.
"Business has really picked up," said Patrice Ausby, assistant manager at the Lerner's Shops in the mall. "And the crowds after Thanksgiving--oh, my goodness!"
The level of business this year varies by shop. Some owners say they are running about even with last year, others say sales are slower, and still others say they are counting on a last-minute rush to make their season profitable.
Steve Gentry, the mall's manager for the last 2 1/2 years, said that this Christmas "is looking good, with good crowds. I don't have any numbers yet, but that is the sense I get from talking to merchants and walking the mall."
The mall can trace its origin--in part--to sharp criticism from African Americans of the late former Mayor Tom Bradley.
Those critics argued that Bradley had wrought a miracle along Figueroa Street in the downtown financial district, but had done very little for the blighted Crenshaw district, where he had found rock-solid support at the ballot box throughout his political career.
The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was Bradley's response. And even his most severe critics acknowledge that without Bradley twisting arms and wheeling and dealing, the mall may never have happened.
Even after it opened, naysayers proclaimed that retail investments in Central Los Angeles were tantamount to throwing money away.
And there are still critics who say they will not shop at the mall because its stores do not carry the merchandise they are seeking. Some point to paint peeling in great swatches from the Macy's exterior and contend that such conditions would not be tolerated at the company's stores in other neighborhoods.
A spokeswoman at Macy's western headquarters in San Francisco said the company official who could discuss the store's condition was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
Some merchants criticize residents of affluent nearby neighborhoods for not patronizing the mall in large enough numbers.
Manny Agee Muze, owner of Diamond Jewelers in the mall, is optimistic about this selling season, but he wants to see more of what he calls "the rich people" from the hillside communities.
"We get a lot of action, but it would make a big difference if we could get the people with the big money," said Muse, who owns two other jewelry shops. He said he has not discovered how to break through "the mentality" that keeps those customers away.