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Replacing Stores Has Lifted Spirits

April 21, 2002|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drug users, panhandlers and other hangers-out used to cluster at dusk outside Park's Liquor in South-Central Los Angeles, forcing Marai Rodriguez to close her nearby building supplies store by 5 p.m.

"I was afraid to leave any later," Rodriguez said.

Today, the liquor store is gone--one of an estimated 200 liquor outlets burned during the 1992 riots. Rodriguez expanded her business into its space, becoming part of a trend that has seen at least 40 former liquor outlets replaced by other businesses.

The shift was driven partly by an economic downturn in the early the 1990s and partly by the fears of some owners to rebuild. But it was given a big push by community pressure and City Hall, which imposed new requirements, ranging from reduced operating hours to mandatory deployment of security guards, on many of the liquor stores seeking to rebuild.

State figures show there now are 526 alcohol retailers in a 40-square-mile area of South-Central L.A., down from more than 660 before the riots.

Citywide, the number of liquor retailers dropped by 15%, compared with a 20% drop in South-Central L.A., an area bounded roughly by Washington and El Segundo boulevards, Alameda Street and La Brea Avenue.

The new businesses include burger joints, shoe stores and used-car lots, but views vary on the economic effects of the change. Although one supermarket brought in more than 150 jobs, many of the new businesses provide only a few jobs for area residents, and some of the former owners see the conversions as more like "coercions" that forced them out of business.

But some shops, including Hogar's Building Materials & Custom Cabinets owned by Rodriguez on South Broadway, report increased revenue. And to community activists and political and religious leaders, fewer liquor stores have meant an improved quality of life for individual neighborhoods.

In the long run, these neighborhood leaders say, watering down the liquor trade leads to less crime and a chance to attract better commercial developments to an economically depressed area.

"What those 40-plus businesses are not generating is public nuisance problems in the neighborhood," said Karen Bass, executive director of the South-Central Los Angeles-based Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, which headed efforts to reduce the area's liquor outlets.

"We weren't trying to solve the employment issue. We were trying to reduce the nuisance problems that contribute to crime and deter positive economic development," she said.

Community activists describe many of the burned outlets as "problem markets," stores that sold fortified wines, drug paraphernalia, individual beers and cups with ice. Others had sofas and lounge chairs in their parking lots, essentially creating outdoor bars.

"Problems like loitering, drug trafficking, public drunkenness, public urination, violent fights, those kinds of activities are not taking place in front of Smart & Final," said Bass, referring to the discount grocer that replaced a liquor store in the 3600 block of South Vermont Avenue.

But the burned-out store owners see themselves as victims, used as scapegoats to take the blame for the deteriorated conditions in some South-Central L.A. neighborhoods.

"Most of the stores that were burned out served a purpose in the community," said Elliott Birnberg, president of the Southern California Beverage Merchants Assn. "They were little markets for people who didn't have the mobility to drive to the larger stores."

An estimated 50 stores selling spirits reopened in South-Central L.A. after the unrest, with stringent operating conditions attached.

The Community Coalition takes credit for keeping 150 stores out by creating a climate in which scores of owners didn't even apply to reopen. The group also rallied neighbors in affected areas to appear at City Hall to oppose many of the reopenings and support such city measures as a plan by City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas to waive sewer hookup fees for new coin-operated laundries, Bass said.

At least seven of the sites reopened as laundries--a needed service but one that generates few jobs and is generally not as lucrative for the owner as a liquor store.

Among the most successful new or expanded businesses is Hogar's.

A year after the embers cooled, Rodriguez used $140,000 in savings to take over the site of the burned-out liquor store and an adjacent check-cashing business.

The growth spurt doubled the store's size, allowing her to add products, hire two more workers and boost her revenue by "at least 100%," she said. "Now I'm able to close at 7 during the summer."

At an erstwhile liquor store turned laundermat in the 5600 block of South Normandie Avenue, business is so-so, "enough to keep the place running," said the local handyman and unofficial manager who is known to locals as T.C.

Where C&M Liquor once stood, children now play arcade games. A few feet away, their parents use the washers and dryers.

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