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For Crenshaw Plaza, Season Looks Bright

Business: The shopping center, regarded as a sign of community's standing, survived a rocky start. Now its merchants are optimistic about future.

December 14, 1998|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"They don't want to come over here," he said. "What is the problem? This is a great mall, a beautiful mall."

He concedes that he gets some customers from nearby upscale ZIP Codes, but more shoppers from those neighborhoods patronize his stores in Westchester and Culver City, he said.

But even without the "big money" people, Muze said, he thinks this will be his best Christmas in two years in the mall.

"I see it coming," he said. "This area is coming up."

And what appears to be the insoluble problem of attracting more well-heeled African Americans to the mall may be becoming a moot point. Solidly middle-class and working-class African Americans are making the mall their first stop.

"I love this mall," Grace Epps, a Leimert Park resident, said as she looked at warmup suits at Sears. "I don't have to ride three buses to shop."

Eric Ellison and Eric Braden, special education assistants at Locke High School in Watts, brought six students to the mall recently as part of a program to teach them "life skills" such as riding a bus and making purchases.

"I make it a point to come to this mall," said Ellison, who lives in Gardena. He said it is important for his students, all African Americans on the recent trip, to see black people in business.

The plaza is also cashing in on the rapidly increasing numbers of Latinos who shop there.

"For me, this mall is fine, with many shops and a great selection," Marco Perez, 35, a Los Angeles hotel steward, said in Spanish as he shopped last week with his daughter Melissa, 3. The fact that he doesn't speak very much English has not been a problem, he said.

"Robinsons May, Macy's, Sears all have people working there who speak Spanish," he said.

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African Americans are still 54% of the customer base at Sears in the mall, but Latinos now make up 46%, said Sears manager Lupe Barraza.

This Christmas season is about equal to last year, she said.

"This is a very competitive marketplace," she said, "and we're expecting a late Christmas."

Jebessa Daba's Ethio Cafe, a kiosk selling espresso coffee and other drinks, opened just after Thanksgiving last year and became an instant success, he said.

"Last year we did great, and this year we are hoping to do just as well," said Daba, 31, an Ethiopian immigrant who also owns an Inglewood nightclub, a video store and a beauty supply store.

But Daba is the personification of the problem other merchants like jeweler Muze is trying to solve. Although his business in the mall has been an unqualified success, Daba is one of those upscale nearby residents who does not shop there. And he sees no contradiction in not shopping where so many people patronize his business.

"I can't find the clothing in the Macy's here that I find in the Beverly Center," he said.

By most estimates, the mall will prosper as long as the local economy does well. Along with increased traffic generated by Johnson's theaters, Chalee Blues, a Creole restaurant, has built a large following with a savory array of Louisiana dishes, along with jazz and zydeco music.

Gentry, who spends a good part of his day walking the mall--checking for everything from spills to unlit store signs--is nothing if not upbeat about the future.

"The mall is 90% occupied, and we have a lot of inquiries and meetings with companies," Gentry said. "Those companies realize this is a viable mall in a viable area."

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