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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The new lights are bright but the economic prospects remain dim along Whittier Boulevard

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

11 comments

  1. Very interesting piece. This was such a great Los Angeles street, and the potential for revitalization is still there. I just hope if it does come back, it happens organically, with the sort of small businesses that have always been its heart.

    I miss doing the circuit of the thrift shops on the boulevard–CHOC, Goodwill, Out of the Closet and Salvation Army all shut down in recent years.

  2. It seems that stretch of Whittier needs some destination businesses, such as a restaurant with an attached club/bar with live music, a (live) theater, or a comedy club. I especially like that idea; if they opened a comedy club there, the street would be … wait for it, folks … wittier.

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

  3. A big part of it is that the people living in the area simply don’t have the disposable income to support the types of businesses that might become a draw for outsiders. The reality of our new service economy is that a lot of families simply are working to live. If I recall, the police have shut down cruising on the Blvd. Is that right?

  4. What ever happened with having the Gold Line run to Whittier. I see they were talking about it for a while in 2010. Anyone know the details?

  5. Whittier Blvd. has very little appeal compared to the newer street venues in ELA and Boyle Heights. It is no longer the “hang” area for people living outside that area. It just can’t compete with the newer venues.

  6. Bob. What are the newer venues in the area?

  7. As president of UNO in the 80s I was directly involved with the project that turned turnrfover that stretch of Whittier Blvd. from the state of Calif. over to the county along with about $3 million in improvements including fixing the sidewalks and bringing in the mexican fan palms that line the boulevard. If we need to revisit the boulevard then we should. I am ready to join hands with others to begin a dialogue about what needs to be done.

    • Since Gloria Molina will be termed out, citizens need to start a conversation with whomever the new supervisor will be. The best bet is to talk to those who are running for her seat and catch their attention BEFORE they get into office. Lord knows once they get into office they can easily forget the promises they make.

      One major issue is that residents of ELA spend much of their money in other cities like Monterey Park, Commerce, Alhambra and Montebello.

      • You are so right, I lived in East LA for over 14 years. My son was raised in East La. He’s currently a Senior at Garfield High School. When the time came for me to become a home owner, I had to buy not only outside East LA, but also outside of LA County because homes in East LA were still out of my price range. All the years I lived in East LA I would always go do most of my shopping at Montebello and Pico Rivera, And now San Bernardino County is getting most of my income, sad but true!.

  8. I lived right off of Mcbride and Whittier for the last ten years, my parents still live there and I visit weekly. I would walk up and down Whittier for daily walks to appreciate its historical significance. Although it is true that many businesses have shut down, not all businesses are generic. I dare anyone to walk by Sonora Bakery and not stop in and buy at least one piece of freshly baked pan dulce, then stop for a steaming plate of goat birria at Tortas Ahogadas “El Güero.” And for dessert, stop for a raspado and bionico at the raspado spot next door. And let’s not forget “Sounds of Music,” one of the last remaining record shops in all of L.A.

    At least for the food enthusiast, Whittier Blvd. is rich with outlets. Now as far as other businesses go, not so much. Local governments need to get involved and back up entrepreneurs, the neighborhood has plenty of up and coming, really good bands that would love a venue to play at, hint, hint.

    Also, what ever happened to the “Latino Walk of Fame?”

  9. They so called fix the street but lost a lot of parking..and on burger you can only park 1 hour…they should turn it into a one way and park at a angle. .

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