A commuter waits for a bus outside the Spring Street Arcade in downtown L.A.… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The salesmen at the Spring Street Arcade spend their day gazing out at a city that's passing them by.
All around, a trendy downtown is on the rise — pet stores selling gourmet dog chews, chic bars with ginger and juniper soda cocktails, a new generation of mostly young residents jogging in spandex and cruising on bikes.
But inside the 88-year-old shopping arcade, with its giant curved skylight, arched Spanish Renaissance entryways and Beaux Arts exterior, many of the stores are vacant, and the remaining merchants seem stuck in another era. Bargain-rate clothes, toys, suitcases and DVDs share shelf space with dusty boomboxes and T-shirts from '90s rock bands like Korn and Nirvana.
Photos: The Spring Street Arcade
Mohad Azimi lingers through the morning outside his kitchen appliance shop, chatting with the Taiwanese salesman at the toy store next to him. These days, the jokes focus on a new Starbucks that's just opened at Spring and 6th streets. Maybe that's where all the people are going now, the merchants say.
"Look around here — business is dead," Azimi says as he looks across the arcade's empty corridor, which stretches from Spring to Broadway. "Nobody comes inside."
Azimi opened his business in the early 1990s, after emigrating from Afghanistan. Back then, Los Angeles was still enjoying a boom in immigration from places like Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador, and the mall was so busy on the weekends that you could barely walk inside. Broadway was a bustling promenade, with shoppers pouring in on bus lines from all over the city.
Families would come to buy kitchenware at Azimi's shop, sometimes shipping the products back to relatives in Latin America. And while they were there, he says, they'd pick up toys and clothes for their children.
Azimi still stacks the same goods on a white plastic table at the front of his shop — toaster ovens, blenders and microwaves in battered cardboard boxes. Inside the cluttered shop, there are old keyboards, calculators and Nintendo GameCube consoles.
But he makes only a few sales each week, he says, and he's not sure he can make it to the end of the year.
"The new residents, they don't have a family, they don't have anyone to cook for," Azimi says. "They just have a dog."
When the Spring Street Arcade opened in 1924, it was hailed as Los Angeles' premier shopping center — and celebrated with a bash that brought out Will Rogers and Charlie Chaplin.
Back then, the area was filled with department stores, high-end shops and rows of movie palaces. Even as downtown faded after World War II and the department stores and movie houses closed down, the small merchants along Broadway, Main and other downtown streets managed to find new customers.
By the 1980s, hundreds of them were making a good living catering to the city's rising Latino immigrant community, both new immigrants and Mexicans who would cross the border for shopping runs.
The retail economy was so strong that Broadway storefronts famously commanded rents similar to those of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
But changes in immigration patterns, improved economic conditions in Mexico, competition in other communities and the recession have left many downtown merchants fighting to survive. While new, "500 Days of Summer" residents are frequenting bars and restaurants and coffeehouses, they have little need for the bargain shops that line the arcade.
Joel Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University, says the shift is evident all around downtown.
It's the "gradual dissolution of one economy — a really vibrant, unique economy — and an attempt to replace it with another," he says. "The question is, are we just seeing the death of something that will be replaced, or will we have this parallel universe of yuppies alongside the decline?"
Inside the arcade, merchants are quick to reminisce about the prosperous years — and lament how it went so wrong.
"Any store you opened here on Broadway, it was a gold mine," says Cesar Balbuena, a 60-year-old electronics salesman who has worked downtown since 1971. For the last 28 of those years, he's been a fixture at Audio Video Plaza, a glass-walled electronics shop at the edge of the arcade.
The first signs of decline, he says, came around 2000, when an economic downturn hit many of the low-income workers who did their shopping at the arcade. Broadway began facing stronger competition from markets in such communities as East L.A. and Huntington Park and, later, chains like Costco and Wal-Mart. Mexico's economy was rapidly improving, cutting the supply of shoppers who would come north to buy merchandise.
These days, the dozen or so remaining businesses inside the arcade are desperate. Many of the merchants scrape by on month-to-month leases, and aren't sure how much longer they can hold out.
Before the Great Recession, Balbuena says, Audio Video Plaza cleared more than $10,000 in sales on a good day. Now, it hopes for $3,000.