There are 7,000 miles of roads in Los Angeles. Few have shouldered more than South Central Avenue.
It was a streetcar line, cleared 122 years ago to shuttle commuters to the first suburb of South Los Angeles. It housed some of the nation's first middle-class African American families, and its clubs and hotels were the laboratories where West Coast jazz was born. "The Avenue" was a place of promise, of strolls in your Sunday best -- "something very elegant," said City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
But the manufacturing base withered and the downtown union jobs vanished. Those who could moved on. Central Avenue succumbed to poverty and joblessness, gangs and crack. It became something very different -- an emblem, Perry said, of "the demise of the American city."
So this morning, at the haggard corner of Central and 20th Street, there will be no lack of fanfare when civic leaders open the doors of a project that carries with it more hope and expectation than it might elsewhere: a new supermarket.
Superior Grocers is the first full-scale market to open in the community in at least five years. The store, which will cater largely to the area's dominant Latino community, is the 33rd Superior in Southern California. It will serve as the anchor of a $27.5-million mixed-use development called Central Village: 45,000 square feet of retail space and 85 affordable-housing apartments.
At City Hall and in South L.A., many view the development as cause for optimism -- something that hasn't been in vogue here for 50 years or so -- and a suggestion, however humble, of a resurrection.
"A lot of our kids see what's around them and think that nothing ever changes," said Sharon Ramos, the youth director at a nearby church and community center who plans to shop at the market. "This is a start, a way for them to see that things do change. It's a big deal around here."
Most days, Central seems trapped between old and new. There are coin laundries and $39 hotels, sewing machine shops and auto garages, their walls covered with gang graffiti. Across the street from the towering Superior, men in work clothes ate silently at a taqueria Thursday, watching a Spanish-language western. To beat the heat, young mothers huddled with their strollers in the shade of a bus stop.
And yet this same corridor is in the midst of a $150-million-plus construction jag.
Early next year, another full-service grocery, a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, is set to open at Central and East Adams Boulevard. That will anchor another mixed-use project, a $32-million development with 18,500 square feet of retail space and 79 affordable-housing apartments.
Even the sudden availability of produce will be a significant development. Researchers concluded recently that the neighborhood is a food "desert" where it is nearly impossible for many families to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
Phil Lawrence, Superior's chief operating officer, said Thursday that the company's research revealed a potential market of 440,000 people in 120,000 households -- and a dramatically underserved neighborhood.
A third mixed-use project, the $28-million Rittenhouse Square, is scheduled to open next spring at Central and East 33rd Street. It will include 4,500 square feet of retail space and 100 apartments for seniors. And Perry's $13-million Constituent Service Center -- a local city hall of sorts, complete with rooftop garden -- will open next month at Central and East 43rd Street.
Several other projects are scheduled to follow. A $9.3-million early education center and health clinic is expected next year on East Jefferson Boulevard, just west of Central, followed in the next few years by another $15-million housing development and a $23-million renovation of a YMCA.
"We're going to give people back their history," Perry said.
Central Avenue has a long way to go; even with crime falling, it is the north-south spine of an LAPD district that counts 41 gangs in nine square miles, all within sight of City Hall and downtown's skyscrapers. The development, many hope, will serve as a spark.
"I absolutely think it's a resurrection of what it used to be," said Johnny Andrade, the business liaison of the fledgling Central Avenue Business Assn., which has 63 members. "That's what everyone here is hungry for."
There are concerns here that the city could go too far -- that all of this activity could push local business owners and working-class families out of one of the few pockets of the city they can still afford.
Central Avenue, originally a residential street, is home to an unusual building type called a "taxpayer block" -- small brick buildings, many of them built before World War I, with retail space on the ground floor and apartments or offices above.