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Gold Line extension not yet a money train on Eastside

March 28, 2009|Hector Becerra
  • Many businesses in East Los Angeles have struggled to stay open during years of construction of the Gold Line extension. One shop along the route complained of losing as much as 80% of its business.
Many businesses in East Los Angeles have struggled to stay open during years… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Years of construction for the Gold Line Eastside rail extension have taken a toll on the burrito queen of East Los Angeles.

Adeline "Tuchie" Portillo has seen the popular burrito joint she has run for 37 years -- "Lupe's #2 Specializing in 12 Kinds of Burritos" on 3rd Street -- pummeled by blocked traffic, eliminated parking spots and scared-off customers.

In online reviews, even some of her customers wondered whether the sometimes gruff, 73-year-old self-described "homegirl" was losing her edge to mounting frustration.

"Lupe is a grouchy old lady who seems to have mellowed a bit as she has struggled with the Metro construction," read an online entry Portillo showed off with a laugh on a recent afternoon.

But in the last two weeks, Portillo has finally begun to catch a whiff of relief: The Gold Line is coming soon, as someone from the neighborhood might say, "for reals." The heavy equipment that once dug and moved dirt and tunneled along stretches of the Gold Line from downtown L.A. through Boyle Heights and into East L.A. has mostly disappeared. The streets are mostly open. Trains have been making test runs.

By summer, the MTA will bring rail back to one of L.A.'s most transit-dependent regions. MTA officials say it will connect people from Boyle Heights and East L.A. to other parts of the county, including Pasadena and Long Beach. But they say the rail line will also bring more people, and possibly more money, to mostly mom-and-pop businesses that have struggled for years in part because of the major construction, and most recently, because of the onset of the global financial crisis.

Jose Luis Martinez, 40, the owner of Rosario's Clothing on 1st Street near Lorena Street, said it's hard to see the promise of the Gold Line from where he is. He walked to a closet in the back of his store of 14 years and pulled out black trash bags filled with ruined clothing. So much dust came in during construction that Martinez said about 300 pieces of clothing, mostly shirts, were stained. His business has been tanking because of the construction and, now, the economy.

Martinez said the crushing recession has convinced him that he has to save his business at all costs.

"Before, you wanted to blame the MTA for everything, but then the economy got so bad, and now you don't know what's hitting you," Martinez said. "To be honest, if I was making minimum wage for a company, I'd make more money. But I have to save my business so that if the economy gets better, I'll have my business to help me recover."

Martinez said he was trying to be optimistic that the opening of the Gold Line would bring more business. "We're running on pure hope right now," he said.

Portillo is even more skeptical. She opened her eatery on May 8, 1972, inheriting what was once a hot dog stand from a woman named Lupe. The woman let Portillo keep the marquee and even lent her money to start her business. Portillo said in some ways she was fortunate because, as of the early 1990s, she has owned the property her business sits on. The money to buy the land came entirely from "Lupe's #2," she said proudly.

"That was my advantage. If I had to pay rent like I was paying before, I never would have made it."

Over the decades, she has gained a loyal following. Customer Carlos Sanchez, 33, said dozens of Orthodox Jews show up every few months in a bus just to buy about 100 tacos and burritos.

But when the Gold Line construction started, parking was eliminated on that stretch of 3rd Street -- and it won't be coming back. Many customers simply drive away if they can't find a nearby spot, Sanchez said as he ate a hamburger and fries on a recent afternoon.

"She's been here for 37 years, and who knows, hopefully she'll be here as long as she wants," he said. "But ain't nothing for sure these days, as bad as the economy is."

Portillo said sarcastically that at least the MTA bought her a new sign.

"The one that says, 'Open during construction?' " Sanchez cracked, alluding to a yellow and black sign that has become common throughout the Gold Line areas. No, a new marquee, she explained.

"I didn't need a sign," she muttered. "I need customers."

Several miles to the west on Lorena Street, across from the more-than-a-century-old Evergreen Cemetery, Doris Castellanos cut a customer's hair and complained that business has dropped off as much as 80% because of blocked traffic and reduced parking spots. She showed pages from a notebook listing the days' haircuts. On a recent Monday, she trimmed only two heads.

"I used to fill pages before, just with one day," the Salvadoran immigrant said. "I don't think I'll ever get that business back. The train isn't going to help. On the contrary."

To survive, she also sells toilet paper, shoes, shampoo, Halloween costumes, bags of chips, shirts, flowers and soft drinks. One longtime customer, an elderly man, gave her $100 after a haircut recently because he felt bad for her.

"And he has like four hairs!" she said.

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