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L.A. at Large

Where Time Almost Stood Still

Regulars of the Farmers Market lament the changing of a landmark that has endured for more than 65 years.


This morning at the Farmers Market shines silver. The famous clock tower bumps against clouds low as an acoustic ceiling, and beneath the green roof of the market, between the welter of tchotchke stores and fruit vendors, the restaurants and newsstands, the air is rimed with an inland mist. Atop the asphalt ground, the round tables glimmer damply, slick and worn as a scattering of old dimes.

At 9:30, it is still too early for the young, hip industry wannabes and almost-ares who gather on the Western Terrace, in the fragrant shadow of the Gumbo Pot. But at the eastern patio, most of the tables are already taken. The Sunday smell of warm sugar and frying dough from Bob's Doughnuts still overwhelms the work-a-day scents of melting mozzarella, baking bread, cooking meat. Here, solitary figures hunch over their cups, their papers, their unpaid bills. Nannies and mothers pour orange juice into sippy cups, tear croissants into manageable pieces, sit beside the strollers and sigh. Groups of women and of men, but few of both, lean only slightly into their quiet conversations; they are listening, yes, and talking, but also sipping and watching, thinking and gathering. Steam, perhaps, or memories--whatever is required today.

Mornings and late afternoons at the Farmers Market belong to the regulars. From noon till 2 p.m., the tourists rule, arriving by the busload to eat lunch and keep their eyes peeled for Julia Roberts, for Ben Affleck, both of whom have been spotted here, but never at lunch hour. The rest of the day is owned by the faithful--a disparate group who can be found here each and every day, always in the same area, often at the same table. Retirees in track suits and patterned sweaters, screenwriters and musicians, leggy model hopefuls with flawless pedicures, studio executives and surgeons, the unemployed and underemployed. Amid the strawberry-sweet breath of the fruit stands, they scribble notes, swap war stories and contact numbers or just stare into space, lulled by the whir of Magee's peanut butter maker, the breeze stirred by passersby, the light dancing on 200 souvenir shot glasses.

The only thing these people have in common is that five, 10 or 40 years ago, they stopped by for a cup of coffee and a hard roll and decided to stay. That and their growing concern that after more than 65 years, their home-away-from-home, this brick-red and cream-colored heart of Los Angeles is about to change.

The controversy over the development of the land adjoining the Farmers Market began almost 20 years ago. In the Reagan years, the A.F. Gilmore Co., which owns the 31-acre plot at the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, began clearing its throat and muttering words like "redevelopment." In 1988, redevelopment took the shape of a planned 600-room hotel at the Farmers Market and a 2-million-square-foot shopping center next door. Amid howls of protest from nearby residents and concerns about the impact on traffic, the hotel idea was jettisoned and the shopping center scaled down to 640,000 square feet. Construction on $100 million worth of high-end shops, restaurants, movie theaters and offices began last year. The new mall, dubbed the Grove, will be completed next year.

To make up for the pulled-up parking lot, the Dell, an under-occupied line of Farmers Market storefronts, was demolished and paved over. Still, parking and traffic have become a nightmare on the already overused corridor, and many market regulars have taken a hiatus that vendors and regulars alike fear will slide into permanent retirement. The stalwarts, customers so loyal they might someday earn a plaque on a table like the one dedicated to the late Times columnist Alan Malamud, cannot stay away. And so they shake their newspapers out, grumble to each other and glare at the growing latticework of girders, at the secular spires of cranes.

"It's been an island of stability in this town," says novelist and screenwriter David Freeman, who has been a morning regular for two decades. "There have been no big changes until this coming encroachment and that was the beauty of it. At the Farmers Market it is always 1962. Except in Du-par's, where it's still 1945."

Others are even more passionate. "We are a village in Kashmir that is being overrun," splutters one die-hard denizen in a tone that is only slightly self-parody. "Life as we know it is about to end."

On this morning, two days before the beginning of Passover, the market remains steeped in its odd charm. Moving among the tables, a grizzled man in a military cap that proclaims him a veteran of foreign wars offers copies of a Haggada on pages of neon orange.

"This is why we've been coming here for 20 years," says director Paul Mazursky, who sits with Freeman, as he has for years. "Where else can you get coffee and a Haggada from a man who fought with Sgt. York?"

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