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Untapped tourism gems?

L.A.'s ethnic enclaves tend to be overlooked by visitors. A project aims to advertise their attractions and offer an economic boost.

June 09, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

In Highland Park, an explosion of art galleries in the last few years has made the neighborhood a leading light of contemporary Latino art in Los Angeles.

East Hollywood, meanwhile, features a profusion of Thai restaurants and spas, along with Armenian bakeries, shops and a boat-shaped library, which reflects the legend that Noah's Ark came to rest on an Armenian mountain.

And in Leimert Park, hip-hop artists, drummers and jazz and blues musicians have turned the tree-lined pedestrian space into a vibrant center of African American performance art.

But the three Los Angeles County neighborhoods, which are often overlooked by tourists, also have struggled because of a challenging business environment and physical deterioration. According to the 2000 Census, the three neighborhoods have lower median household incomes and higher poverty rates than the county average.

Now UCLA is partnering with nonprofit L.A. Commons and several other companies and organizations in an effort to turn the economic tide. The project, called Uncommon L.A., is touting cultural tourism to the three neighborhoods as a way to help bring in free-spending tourists to boost economic development. Among other things, the project is sponsoring a summer-long series of tours to the areas, including an exploration of Highland Park's art galleries tonight.

"Most tourists from other cities tend to see only a small part of L.A. -- Disney Hall, Griffith Park ... " said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of the UCLA urban planning department, who helped launch Uncommon L.A. "But there is a whole vibrant part of Los Angeles they're missing: all of our ethnic neighborhoods. If we can help make them more visible, we see this as a model for economic development," she said.

Michael McDowell of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau agrees that the city's ethnic enclaves are a potential draw for tourists. Although the top five Los Angeles tourist attractions offer quintessential Southern California features of sun, fun and glitz -- Universal Studios, the Getty Center, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive and Venice Beach -- ethnic neighborhoods may be of particular interest to repeat visitors who already have seen the region's major landmarks, he said.

Half of the 25 million tourists who visit Los Angeles annually are from the San Diego-San Francisco-Phoenix triangle, he said, and probably are familiar with the region.

"They've done the landmarks," McDowell said. "They're looking for something new."

The experience of other cities suggests that cultural tourism can effectively boost economic development, according to Anne McAulay, director of cultural development for L.A. Commons, the community organization that is partnering with UCLA.

Boston's "Beyond Baked Beans" program, for instance, offers detailed guides to 19 neighborhoods. In the approximately 10 years the program has run, the districts have gained more than 3,600 jobs, 540 new businesses, 517 design improvement projects and more than $11 million in grants and private investment to the area, according to McAulay's research.

That research helped lay the groundwork for Uncommon L.A., which is being funded by a two-year, $75,000 grant from the UCLA Center for Community Partnerships. McAulay and others also have taken surveys of area merchants and compiled "cultural inventories" of each neighborhood so that they can map the restaurants, art galleries and other assets and use the information to develop a marketing plan for the three ethnic areas.

Many of the neighborhood merchants, artists and community leaders have embraced the project.

"It would be absolutely great to have more cultural tourists down here," said James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Leimert Park, which is an enclave of African American businesses, cultural organizations and Art Deco architecture just off Crenshaw Boulevard in the Crenshaw district. "They would help the area a tremendous amount."

Fugate said his business has plunged by 50% since he moved his store, a large African American book store, from La Brea and Rodeo Avenues last October because of rising rents. Leimert Park is more affordable, he said, but a tad "lonely" when it comes to foot traffic, he said.

Uncommon L.A. aims to increase visitors by touting Leimert Park's performance art -- jazz at World Stage, blues at Babe's and Ricky's Inn, and hip-hop at KAOS Network. But whether that will help boost business for area merchants is uncertain, mainly because performances usually don't start until 9 p.m., long after vendors selling African American jewelry, clothing, art and other artifacts close shop.

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