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The street bustles with people; music roars out from the stores; salespeople urge you into their shops and merchandise spills out into the sidewalks. This is Broadway Street in the historic downtown Los Angeles. Once the home to shops like Bullocks, May Company, Broadway, Woolworth, and even See’s Candy, the street is still as vibrant with commerce as it was during its glory days in the early 1900′s.

Boasting the largest concentration of theaters in the world, this historic street was once THE place to shop and be entertained. As with many central business districts, the historic core (Spring, Broadway and Hill streets) lost its major tenants as the department stores decamped to the suburbs along with their customers. Today, the people are different, but the synergy of retail still thrives between 3rd and Olympic streets – a long span of seven city blocks. Major retailers are Fallas Paredes (department store) and Canada (shoes) both major Mexican brand names. The new downtown along Figueroa (Financial District) is home to fine dining, better (name brand and quality) shopping and entertainment. On Broadway, by 7 pm, everything is closed.

The Merchants

Broadway Street is one of the few successful shopping corridors where name brands do not line the street, yet it is lively even during holidays and rainy days. Where many shopping areas struggle to create a sense of place, or attempt marketing strategies to attract shoppers, Broadway’s retail developed without the assistance of commercial consultants. Broadway is a thriving pedestrian shopping strip where the niche is discount shopping. As major department stores left, smaller no-name merchants moved in. A few well-known retailers did come; Payless Shoes (6th & 9th Streets), Footlocker, Big Lots (previously Pic-N-Save) and Rite-Aid, but they are not the majority.

The street has several niches including some stores that are rare finds. The northern area of Broadway Street provides one-stop shopping for all your quinceƱera (a coming-of-age tradition for young ladies turning 15) and wedding needs, from marriage licenses, attire for the entire wedding party, and accessories, to chapels and quick divorces. Most items are at least half off the typical mall prices. It is not uncommon to see a line of brides and grooms waiting in the sidewalks ready to vow their love for each other.

Newspaper stands, electronics, clothing, perfume and gift shops are ubiquitous. The prices are relatively low and the quality can be quite good. Without careful inspection you may not notice that the print pattern on the skirt you purchased may not line up correctly or the stitching may be a little crooked. The $4.99 clothing stores had their start right here in the heart of the City. The latest fashion trends for women can be found throughout the street’s length. If a color is out of season, travel to Broadway and chances are you will find it there. In fact, the only thing you cannot find on Broadway is furniture. Yes, you can even find pets including roosters and other exotic birds. One bookstore sells revolutionary literature and a music store specializes in accordions, a bit of the exotic located in this regional shopping strip. The electronic shops sell discontinued and refurbished models of cameras – digital and print – and recording, stereos, and much more all at exceptional prices.

Perhaps one of the most interesting niches on Broadway is the Jewelry district. A business that continues to grow even in an unsure economy, jewelry shops are the fastest growing merchants along the street, catering to the Latino shoppers. Better quality jewelry can be found on Hill Street (one block west), yet this is not to say that quality jewelers cannot be found on Broadway. One small woman-owned jewelry shop sells custom made jewelry and specializing precious stones. She will even work with an amount you can afford to pay.

Nowhere do merchants want your business more so than the jewelers on Broadway. During one 30-second trip through the Story Building on 7th Street, at least ten merchants had exactly what I was looking for without me verbalizing a thing. Everything from 10 – 22 carat gold to silver, platinum, diamonds, precious stones, watches and anything else that sparkles can be found here, even oversized, diamond-encrusted crosses and dollar signs. Some merchants even offer lay-away. The advantage of shopping for jewelry here are the great deals to be haggled over. But beware, come prepared and be firm in what you want, the salespeople are very good. Do not be fooled by the “today only” specials. By the same token, do not expect the item you wanted to be there when you return a month later.

Foods

There are no name restaurants, in addition to the fast food establishments that have recognized the potential of these low-income, but highly traversed shopping districts. KFC, Taco Bell, and Carl’s Jr. are focused at the 7th Street intersection – a highly traveled corner. Yoshinoya, McDonald’s and Pollo Loco are located between 3rd and 4th Streets. Other less known food places include a place that sells both Indian and Mexican food AND you can purchase a porcelain doll before you leave. Greek, Mexican seafood, Chinese, hamburger, pizza and tacos, tacos, tacos can all be eaten on Broadway.

The Grand Central Square Market is the counterpart to the suburban mall’s food court. In addition to the tortas (delicious Mexican sandwich), overstuffed burritos, and seafood eateries, the market has produce, spices, meat and seafood products at amazingly low prices. Rarely is the market not full of shoppers.

This street is full of entrepreneurs who seem to have a different set of business rules and regulatory constraints. The informal sector sells leather belts, watches, turtles, roses, bus tokens, batteries and one lady even sells toothpaste and gum. The food vendors sell bacon-wrapped jalapeno hotdogs, donuts, yellow cherries, fruit doused in chili power and lime, coffee, and my favorite, the corn vendor. Several new newsstands have take up shop on the sidewalks. The newspaper stands sell a variety of reading materials including magazines, newspapers, adult magazines and some sell snacks. These newsstands have the latest fashion magazines and even National Geographic printed in Spanish.

Entertainment

Finding traditional forms of entertainment on Broadway can be difficult. Most would argue that people watching is the best form of entertainment on this street. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to converse with the young boy with elephantiasis in his feet. And similar to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Broadway has its share of entertainers – two to be exact. Both gentlemen stand along the sidewalk and dance to the music flowing from the shops. Otherwise, there’s always the Shrimp Place next to the Grand Central Square Market. Open from 9 am to 9 pm, this place rocks with popular Spanish music. Whether dancing or just drinking mini Coronitas in a bucket with the guys or gals, this is definitely a spot to check out.

Signage:

Along with the sounds of the street, the signs are indicative of the business activities. Several layers of signs line the buildings’ first and second stories in various stages of disrepair. Newer signs are quickly layered with more signage. Many of the merchants lack window space. As a result, there is little room, if any, to advertise more than the name of the store. To make up for this, the smaller merchants do one of two things and sometimes both; list everything the shop sells in the limited signage space, and/or display (just about) every type of merchandise along the entrance. The result is a very ethnic, third-world shopping district look. Yet the signs are almost a nonessential element to a shopper who drives or walks down the street, because there are so many visual distractions drawing your attention to the activity and products along the sidewalk that signs only matter if you want to return later. Most people walk up one side of the street and return on the other to take it all in.

Contrary to the every day appearance real estate prices are high. It is not uncommon for merchants that last only a month while others have been there for over 20 years. Retail space is sometimes used like a swapmeet, where several smaller merchants share space within one retail space. These shops tend to be more organized and easier to walk through since they cannot encroach on each other’s areas. Often times, sidewalk space and even exterior walls are used as additional display areas. It works.

The competition is tough for retailers on Broadway Street. The Macy’s Mall is only a few blocks away as are the various specialty districts that make Downtown a magnet for bargain shoppers. The famous Santee Alley, toy, and flower districts are walking distance away, as is the garment district complete with the California and LA Marts.

Even with all the great deals one can find on Broadway it is not for everyone. Some people do not like the loud music blaring from some shops. Walking down the street is like turning the knob on the radio from left to right while driving in Mexico; catching mostly Spanish stations with occasional English music pumping away. The clothing is mostly geared towards women and small women at that. Few places have fitting rooms and if you are lucky to exchange something, it is usually limited to a couple of days from the date of purchase. The merchandise is not always cheap, contrary to the environment. Regardless of where you go or what you buy, cash is king and will usually guarantee you a better deal.

The Business Improvement District cleans the streets daily, provides maps and other brochures highlighting the various elements of the downtown area and any other assistance a visitor may need. The BID has been instrumental in making the corridor safer and more attractive to greater populations, and Latinos still predominantly visit it.

The Broadway Initiative was developed to revitalize the street. The ultimate goal is a lively pedestrian shopping experience similar to Old Town in Pasadena, Third Street in Santa Monica, or even Pine Avenue in Long Beach. As new housing opportunities evolve in Downtown, surely the retail mix is bound to change to reflect the changing demographics. Or will it? Only time will tell.

Back to Forum Issue 4: Consuming the City