Story and Photos By C.J. Salgado
Driving through East L.A. one night, I notice that at both ends of a one-mile stretch of Whittier Boulevard stand recently erected monument clocks. As 2013 begins, they seem to beg the question of how the passage of time has treated this iconic thoroughfare in this important Mexican-American community. Outwardly, it would seem that the years have been kind to it, especially with completion of a recent streetscape project. But, in reality, a closer look reveals otherwise.
For in that short mile where the improvements were made, almost two-dozen signs of “for rent/lease/sale” are up, telling a tale of economic hardship. Vacancy is high. By about 9 p.m., even on weekends, most businesses close up. Thereafter, there is nothing really interesting going on. No bustling nightlife and nothing to draw in locals, much less visitors. Strangely, the new street lamps only make the loneliness of the boulevard even more apparent after sunset.
True, the boulevard appears cleaner and more sleek today than it did decades ago. However, other significant problems remain. For example, the boulevard has not been re-paved since about 1980, so it’s full of potholes and other surface imperfections. Further, parking is woefully lacking and illegal street vending abounds, both detrimental to a healthy, legitimate business community.
After the recent completion of the $2.1 million Whittier Boulevard Streetscape Project, the boulevard look nice, I suppose. Meant to revitalize the shopping and business district between Burger Avenue and Atlantic Boulevards, the project brought new palm trees, decorative street lighting, bus shelters, benches, bike racks, and, of course, monument clocks to the Whittier Boulevard shopping strip.
Yet, these external improvements mask a deeper issue. What ails the boulevard is more problematic and goes to the heart of what can only be called an identity crisis of economic proportions.
The make-up of the boulevard’s businesses has unwittingly become a source of their own downfall. With a multitude of generic salons, bakeries, eateries, clothing retailers, and the like competing for miserly and mostly local consumer spending, profits are marginal. For a business, that amounts to no growth at best and death at worst.
Although there are a few notable exceptions, many of the mostly mom-and-pop businesses that line the boulevard are struggling, owing to the absence of effective long-term economic planning, financial support, and business education for this district.
“A shopping district needs to have a 20-year plan,” says Tony DeMarco, president of the Whittier Boulevard Merchants Association That type of strategic development requires a lot of dedicated, sustained, and informed collaboration between the business community and the powers that be, something DeMarco feels is missing in this unincorporated area of the county.
“The county people that provide the day-to-day oversight of East L.A. are out of touch with business and the services that are needed in this community…they are not pro business.”
Consider that each December major streets in communities are often adorned with holiday decorations and lighting, proudly marking the festive season, an important time for many businesses. Not so in East L.A. That Christmas spirit seems, sadly, to be a forlorn thing of the past. Nowadays, Whittier Boulevard is looking quite demure.
View Whittier Blvd Streetscape Improvements in a larger map
You see, not since the Whittier Boulevard Christmas Parade was cancelled in 2009, after running over three decades, has there been any glitter or glitz marking the holidays here. That parade, a long-standing tradition, ended primarily because the Whittier Boulevard Merchants Association, representing some 200 merchants and the main organizer, was unable to cover security costs after the County refused to continue to pay for law enforcement for the event.
It has not resumed, and there are no concrete plans to resurrect it, according to DeMarco of the merchant’s association. During its prime, the parade drew many celebrities and spectators, both local and from afar, and from the ranks of movie stars, sports heroes, and powerful politicians.
It’s a far cry today from when the “cruising” of low riders in its heyday on the boulevard forged enduring images of East L.A., tied forever to the challenges and struggles of this bastion of Mexican –Americans. The parade, too, was our very own venue to showcase our culture and hospitality on our terms. Arguably, these were works of pride connected to the boulevard for old and young alike. Where is such pride now?
So as I end my drive down Whittier Boulevard at night, I notice several of the new street lamps are out already. Surely, I think, that is not a good sign, and while I listen to “East L.A.” by War, the lyrics pierce the solitude with an ironic mockery, “Latin music fills the night…down in East L.A…together we can party all the time, down in East L.A.”
C.J. Salgado is an East Los Angeles resident