By C. J. Salgado
I was sitting at my barber’s shop in East L.A. listening to “Paco” tell me, as usual, about his youth in Zacatecas, Mexico, while getting a hair cut, when it hit me to ask him something that’s been on my mind a lot lately – the economy of East L.A. It matters to me because I’m a lifelong resident of this iconic community. You see, East L.A. is in the midst of four-year incorporation effort to become a city (right now, it’s actually an “unincorporated” area of L.A. County). As part of that process, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for the county is to release in late June the results of a study to address specifically whether or not East L.A. could make it as a city based on projected revenues and expenditures.
Whether economic development can be addressed better in East L.A. as a city or with a re-energized county commitment is “food” for thought.
Now, my own ruminations of the economy in East L.A. lead me to believe that there are presently some serious economic challenges facing our community, which cannot be disconnected from the incorporation issue in any fair evaluation. Still, I was moved by what my barber Paco said in response to my question of “would you support cityhood for East L.A.?” He said, “No.” Why? As he clipped around my ear his words came out slowly and methodically “…Para conservar la tradicion y ahorrar.” To understand, I searched for meaning in his response, translating to “…to conserve tradition and save.”
Paco has been a resident of East L.A. for over fifty years! Surely, there was valuable insight in his words. Twice a month he religiously travels to and crosses the border into Mexico to see his wife and leave her some monetary support. Lately, he tells me, it’s been really tough because of the economy’s Great Recession. His clientele has been cut in half. Now he’s the only one working in his barber shop, a small business for over a decade at this location on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. He admits that he’s just barely making it on this strip, much “calmer” now than in the days of the parading low-rider cruisers he remembers. Nevertheless, he survives; proudly claiming it’s his good financial sense that keeps him clipping in East L.A.
As he talked further, I began to understand his plight. With tough competition (there are about 10 barber/salon shops per mile on this boulevard) and little to no historical county interventions, economic survival has required the development of a deep-rooted spirit of independent entrepreneurship and street-level smarts. To Paco, becoming a city would mean having a new boss to deal with and please, i.e., regulation, taxation, code enforcement, etc. In other words, if East L.A. were to become a city, there would no doubt be more local government oversight of business at a higher cost to business. That’s not what he’s used to. Understandably, traditions are hard to give up. That was the essence of Paco’s response.
At that moment, I thought back to an earlier meeting I’d had with an economic development consultant, Rudy Espinoza, a founding board member of Leadership for Urban Renewal Now. His work focuses on “helping the private sector to identify investment opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.” We’d been chatting about the economy in East L.A., particularly the informal economy: “East Los Angeles is an amazing community with a number of inherent assets. For me, these assets include a powerful commitment to culture, a strong network of community-based organizations, and a growing number of entrepreneurs, both formal and informal, that are taking risks to take care of their families. An East L.A. economic strategy needs to be comprehensive and define ways to build on these wonderful assets that already exist — incorporating these assets can be transformative.”
I came out of that meeting with Rudy even surer that one critical success factor lacking in East L.A. was implementation of a basic “economic strategy” to focus, facilitate, and foster business development.
Yes, as Rudy said and as my barber Paco demonstrates, there are many entrepreneurs in East L.A. However, small businesses are in a free fall without the coverage afforded by a general, local economic strategy and plan to guide and soften their landing to the bulls-eye, much like a parachute. What’s also needed in East L.A. is the wide-scale education of entrepreneurs, helping small businesses to start, grow, and succeed! Business success, as well as local economic success, is not an accident. It requires dedicated, long-term planning and the application of solid business principles. Unfortunately, that is not occurring in East L.A. Whether that will change with the creation of a City of East L.A. or with a re-energized county commitment is open to debate.
As for big business, about a year ago, Los Angeles shopping mall and housing developer Rick Caruso stated in the L.A. Times that he’d “love to build something in East L.A.” Wow, meaningful new construction in East L.A. has been depressed for ages and Mr. Caruso is willing to consider us! We must have potential because he builds big. Of course, he goes on to say that “you’ve got to get the right entitlements,” meaning the right reward or benefits. Well, those business incentives cannot be forged, again, without that economic strategy. Granted, we do have a little bit of new construction that’s emerging in East L.A., most recently like the new 3-story, 29 unit motel being built on the eastern edge of Whittier Boulevard, but it’s going to take a lot more to reel in the bigger fish (think of what Monterey Park or Alhambra have done). Mr. Caruso, we’re still waiting.
Okay, I’m done with the daydreaming. My haircut finished, I thanked Paco and handed him a $20 bill. He promptly returned it to me, asking me to go to the nearby bakery for change because his register was empty. I did that, bought a few empanadas for him, and left. As I did so, I felt I owed him more, not for the haircut so much, superb as it was, but for the price-less lessons in the local economy he had afforded me.
C.J. Salgado is a resident of East L.A. and holds a Master’s in Business Administration.
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