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Venerable Langer's celebrates its 60th

June 16, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Pastrami and rye was on the menu. Ham and wry was on the podium.

That was the scene at 7th and Alvarado streets Friday as a lunchtime crowd celebrated the survival, against all odds, of the neighborhood's most unlikely business.

Langer's Delicatessen-Restaurant was marking its 60th anniversary on the corner opposite MacArthur Park, outlasting a Jewish customer base that long ago moved out and an unfortunate drug-dealing culture that moved in.

He can joke about it now, so 94-year-old Al Langer was savoring the moment as Los Angeles officials praised him for hanging in there as they struggled for years to turn the neighborhood around. The street corner will be designated "Langer's Square" on Langer's 95th birthday, Jan. 23, City Council President Eric Garcetti announced.

"Al's living proof you can eat corned beef and live a healthy life," City Councilman Dennis Zine told a crowd gathered on 7th Street. "This place never gave up on the community."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky recalled a turning point when the Metro Red Line subway opened its initial 4.4-mile segment in early 1993 to link downtown Los Angeles to the MacArthur Park-Westlake station.

"I saw 500 people lined up to get into Langer's and I told Norm, 'It was worth spending a billion, 200 million to keep you in business,' " cracked Yaroslavsky.

Norm Langer, 62, runs the 135-seat deli that his father started in 1947. He acknowledged things were touch-and-go in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Jewish clientele living in MacArthur Park-area apartments and rooming houses in the 1940s and '50s took their meals at Langer's, where a corned beef sandwich cost 35 cents. But by the 1960s they were moving on to the Mid-Wilshire, Westside and San Fernando Valley areas.

By the mid-'80s, fashionable department stores such as the nearby Bullocks-Wilshire were shuttered. MacArthur Park became a haven for drug peddlers. The business district's sidewalks were overrun by aggressive panhandlers and vendors selling everything from food to counterfeit driver's licenses and Social Security cards.

Long-established neighboring businesses faded away. The brass- and mahogany-trimmed Edward's Steak House, which opened about the same time as Langer's, shut down after sidewalk shootings and assaults scared away its customers. Langer's cut its nighttime hours because its diners, too, were afraid to go into the area.

"The city was on a program of austerity and not hiring police. They were not able to keep control of the area," Norm Langer said. "Had it not been for the Metro Red Line, I'd probably have closed. The subway was the light at the end of the tunnel."

Downtown office workers have continued to take the quick lunchtime subway ride to Langer's, where corned beef sandwiches now go for $10.95. Norm Langer said he's poised for the downtown district to expand in his direction.

"It can't spread the other direction because of the river. It has to come this way," he said confidently.

Those eating lunch Friday said the pastrami was worth the trip. Forty-year customer Harvey Kern traveled from Ventura County's Oak Park for a pastrami sandwich made with coleslaw and Russian-style dressing.

"In the '90s there would be people hitting you up for money when you parked in the Langer's lot a block away. Women didn't want to come here because of all the accosting going on," said Kern, whose co-workers served him a special Langer's pastrami sandwich at his going-away banquet when he retired 11 years ago as a county hospital executive.

Up at the front counter, Silver Lake lawyer Barry Copilow ordered a pastrami with sauerkraut and nippy cheese grilled on rye.

"It's the best in the country, take it from an old Carnegie Deli boy from New York," said Copilow, who has dined at Langer's for 48 years.

At the rear of the restaurant, Victor Rodarte Sr. ordered the same thing, No. 44 on the menu. For 32 years before retiring in 1989, the Echo Park resident worked as a Langer's chef.

"I never got tired of pastrami. That's why I'm 74 and still kicking," Rodarte said as son Victor Jr. nodded.

"My dad raised six kids on his job here. As a matter of fact, we all worked here at times, catering holiday parties. My dad taught us to play baseball after work in MacArthur Park," said the 44-year-old produce company president, a resident of Westlake Village.

Above Rodarte Sr.'s shoulder hung an oil painting done in 1968 showing him and assistant Wilson Richardson busy behind the deli counter. It colorfully depicts a bustling time, he said.

One that managed to survive at the corner of 7th and Alvarado.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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