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SURROUNDINGS / BYZANTINE-LATINO QUARTER

Where Spanakopita Rubs Elbows With Chile Relleno

The neighborhood around Normandie and Pico learns to make the most of its cross-cultural mix. It's changing things for the better.

August 12, 2004|Nikki Usher | Times Staff Writer

The Latina provided the mango juice, the Greek man the baklava. They sat and talked about their businesses -- ethnic restaurants a block apart on Pico Boulevard.

The Greek's restaurant, Papa Christo's, looks to the past for its identity. This stretch of Pico between Normandie Avenue and Alvarado Street was once Greek-central in Los Angeles.

Although the dome of St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church looms in the background and thousands of Greeks swarm the area each Sunday, Chrys Chrys' marketplace and restaurant is one of the last Greek institutions in the area.

Yolanda Rodriquez's restaurant, El Farolito, with its Mexican fare, reflects the more current demographics. She also gets a throng of Sunday business from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church across the street.

But Sunday brunch can go two ways for people in this neighborhood: Latinos have developed a taste for spanakopita and Greeks stop in to savor Rodriquez's chile relleno.

The area now has an official name to reflect this cross-cultural mix: the Byzantine-Latino Quarter, a label that pays homage to the two ethnic groups that give it its identity.

There are new street lamps and trees, a giant mural with an angel and a phrase about the importance of working together, and a big neon sign atop one of the largest buildings that spells out in blue and yellow letters, "Byzantine-Latino Quarter."

The quarter didn't exist seven years ago. It was written off by many as just another neighborhood close to downtown and considered too dangerous for outsiders to visit.

But with the help of church activists at St. Sophia's, UCLA urban planning students came into the neighborhood to teach business leaders and community members how to begin reclaiming their neighborhood from the seemingly inevitable encroachment of city grime.

"It was really on the decline, but community members approached us to help bring out the potential here," said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA's urban planning department, who organized the project.

A decade ago, Rodriquez and Chrys had neighboring businesses facing the same problems -- graffiti, gang activity and vagrancy -- but the two would never have thought to talk about them.

"I knew he was down the street and I said hi, but never anything more," said Rodriquez.

But now, 10 years later, the two talk almost every day. And the green banners with medieval script hanging on the street are visible signs that this neighborhood is engaged in a whole new spirit of cooperation.

The state Assembly officially designated the area the "Byzantine-Latino Quarter" in 1997 and the Department of Transportation erected street markers in the area.

Grants funded public art and physical repairs. The changes "started to get pride going in the area," said Father John Bakus of St. Sophia's.

The main stretch on Pico has dozens of independent businesses, mostly run by Guatemalans, Ecuadoreans and Salvadorans.

There are about 15 hairdressers, a handful of small markets, toy stores, gift shops and bakeries selling traditional Central American sweets. There's a travel agency, a pharmacy and a handful of bars and restaurants -- mostly catering to the area's Hispanics.

"You can do it all here," said Chrys. "We've got everything."

The area's history is reflected in its buildings. The churches -- St. Sophia and St. Thomas the Apostle -- form the backbone of the neighborhood. St. Thomas celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and has about 8,500 families in its congregation.

Catholic Loyola High School was founded in the area in 1918. And the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery on Washington Boulevard not only featured the first crematory in the West, it is the final resting place of some famous people, including Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel and jazz pianist Art Tatum.

There are large early 20th century homes, built by wealthy European immigrants.

The area fell into decline in the 1960s, along with many other neighborhoods in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles. Many of the Greek businesses moved out.

The Pico neighborhood saw an influx of immigrants from Latin America in the 1980s, which brought in more business but also problems with gangs and graffiti.

The big, old homes remain, but most are deteriorating and now house dozens of families instead of just one.

But when the Rev. Jay Cunnane of St. Thomas the Apostle looks at the neighborhood, he does not see these homes as signs of decay, but as evidence of potential.

"You have amazing local institutions that have been here for years and years, and then a community looking for a common space to grow and develop," he said. "The story of this communication is really what is special."

Most of the graffiti has been painted over. Crime has declined, a fact many community activists credit to better community policing. There's a new public high school being built around the corner.

"This is a really special area and you're starting to see how unique and interesting a place with this much history can be," Bakus said.

A new community center will open soon. The city is supplying $700,000 for creation of small parks and rest areas. A business improvement district was formed this year and the city has recognized a newly formed neighborhood council.

Greek parishioners plan to volunteer to tutor Latinos in English at the new community center on 15th Street. Latinos will come together for the chance to participate in art projects that will be displayed in local businesses and at the churches.

Chrys often has customers pop into his restaurant on the way to nearby Staples Center. He tries to share the wealth.

"Why not go for a little chicken at Dino's down the street?" he may suggest. Or he may direct a visitor to one of the neighborhood's Salvadoran gift stores.

"It just takes a little bit of advertising," he says.

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