In the old days, a war veteran with $1 down could get into a Simi Valley home. So the community quickly came to be known as "Seamy Valley," at least to its upscale neighbors in Thousand Oaks.
Simi Valley leaders have tried for more than four decades to shake that image as a haven for cheap housing and tacky shops. Their latest venture is a plan to renovate tired Los Angeles Avenue, once the commercial heart and soul of Simi Valley but now a two-mile stretch of faded strip malls, mom-and-pop shops and tacky discount stores.
Barber Abe Mehrassa keeps a 1960s-era postcard tucked away in a corner of his shop as a reminder of the avenue's heyday.
On the front is a picture of a thriving shopping center, the words "Simi California" written in black script across the cyan blue sky above Larwin Square.
One of the first shopping centers in Simi Valley, Larwin Square was home over the years to a furniture emporium, a jewelry store, a camera shop and a multiplex movie theater.
But something happened to the shopping center -- whose name was later changed to Mountain Gate Plaza -- and many other storefronts along Los Angeles Avenue, one of the main streets through Simi Valley.
It slowly, painfully fell into disrepair. Foot traffic fell away, businesses moved to more advantageous locations or shut down altogether, and the indoor part of the mall was shuttered.
Now, city officials say they want to persuade the owners of businesses that dot the avenue from Erringer Road to Simi Village Drive to make improvements. If the city offers financial incentives to property owners to make their stores more attractive, the theory goes, businesses will draw more customers -- and bring more tax revenue to the city treasury.
The Simi Valley City Council voted recently to set aside $500,000 for the incentive program, which would provide matching grants of up to $20,000 to property owners or tenants who agree to improve their aging storefronts.
In addition to the grants, the city plans to install new lighting and landscaping along the street, said Brian Gabler, director of the Community Development Agency.
City officials point to the success of a similar program introduced four years ago along Tapo Street, another blighted commercial district, as reason to believe the Los Angeles Avenue proposal will work.
Sixteen projects along Tapo have been completed and seven are under construction, Gabler said. The city's contribution of $495,600 in grants encouraged private property owners to spend $739,800 of their own money to paint, landscape or otherwise upgrade their properties, he said.
But Mehrassa, the barber, said an attractive building does not necessarily translate into ringing cash registers. There are other factors, such as rising rents and competitors with deep pockets, that keep mom-and-pop shops on the edge of extinction, he said.
"If they're trying to do that, they shouldn't be allowing any more shopping centers to be built," Mehrassa said. "They should be doing something about the rents. Businesses can't make it here."
Mountain Gate tenant Eli Pardo would agree. After owning Anderson Jewelers for 39 years, Pardo closed his store for good on Christmas Eve. With more than half the storefronts in the plaza vacant and ownership changing hands three times in the last two years, the shopping complex is more ghost town than bustling commercial center, he said.
"It's in very, very poor shape," Pardo said of Mountain Gate, which recently underwent a rehab that took five years to complete.
"After five years of renovation, it never amounted to anything," he said. "This place is empty."
Down the street, a strip mall built in 1948 is also grappling with vacancy.
The one-story L.A. Avenue Center has lost one of its five tenants and is close to losing another, said Jim Cherry, owner of the Carpet Coop, who has leased space in the building for 31 years.
Although the exterior desperately needs attention, Cherry said the biggest problem is the faulty plumbing. Tenants have complained to the new owner about toilets that don't flush properly, crumbling asphalt in the parking lot, holes in the walls, a broken air conditioner and graffiti out front, but nothing has happened, Cherry said.
Cherry would like to see the landlord, a Los Angeles businessman who bought the building nearly a year ago, take advantage of the city program. But he is doubtful.
"I don't think he has any money," he said.
Although the city will give grants to tenants who want to make improvements to their stores with the permission of building owners, Cherry and other tenants on the avenue said they don't think it's their responsibility.
"Everyone talks about [Los Angeles Avenue] being a slum place, like Tapo," Cherry said. "It's so bad now. This place needs something drastic."
Some 136 properties on Los Angeles Avenue have been identified by city officials as businesses that could benefit from the renovation program, Gabler said. The initial grant will cover 25, he said.
The city is slated to begin accepting applications in February after the Planning Commission and City Council establish boundaries for the improvement zone, Gabler said.