A Tough Pandemic Christmas In A Legendary LA Latino Shopping District
Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park has been a retail magnet since the early part of the 20th century. In the latter decades, as surrounding neighborhoods became predominantly Latino, the boulevard’s shops evolved along with its clientele, and business boomed.
Customers came from around and beyond L.A. to shop for just about anything: shoes, fashions, quinceañera dresses, cowboy boots and hats — you name it. On weekends, as one merchant remembers it, the crowds got so big, “you could barely walk on the streets.”
Lately, it hasn’t been that way. Shops on the boulevard, which largely depend on foot traffic, had already struggled for several years as retail began moving online.
Then came the pandemic.
One recent afternoon, in one of Pacific Boulevard’s many dress shops, Yolanda Perez waited for customers in a near-empty store.
“Here we are already at Christmas time, and look — sales are very slow,” said Perez, who has worked at the boutique, called Jilla Fashion, for 26 years. “We’ve really noticed the difference since the pandemic.”
The store sells formal party dresses, the fancy kind one might wear to a New Year’s Eve party. And of course, it all makes perfect sense to Perez: Who’s going to buy party dresses when fewer people are throwing parties? Besides, times are tough.
“Many people are still afraid to go out,” she mused, in Spanish. “And not spend what they have, I imagine, right?”
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
'I Grew Up On This Street'
About a block from the dress shop, Hussein Joumaa recalled the good old days as he worked the counter at El Charro, a longstanding store owned by his dad that sells Western wear, including jeans, cowboy boots and hats.
“I grew up on this street, basically,” Joumaa said. “I used to come every day with my dad when I was 10, 11 years old. And I remember every weekend, when I used to come, you could barely walk on the streets. That's how much people there [were].”
But by around the late 2000s, he said, things began changing. It wasn’t just the internet. More big-box stores and shopping centers were opening nearby. Little by little, the crowds got smaller.
When 2020 came, and with it the shutdown, what was left of those crowds evaporated. Many of the stores on the boulevard are non-essential and couldn’t stay open.
“Everything was shut down for months and months and months,” said Andy Molina, executive director and CEO of the Greater Huntington Park Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of them couldn't come back. A lot of the stores and the outlets, they couldn’t continue. So there were a lot of ‘for lease’ signs.”
Many of those signs are still there, on empty storefronts. Molina said some small businesses are barely hanging on with skeleton crews — often just the owner and maybe one employee. Would-be customers have lost income, too. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
“I don't see people really … talking about recovery mode,” Molina said. “How can you say recovery when we're not even there yet? Not only the business community — a lot of people lost their jobs here in our communities.”
At A Disadvantage
The kinds of businesses that line Pacific — small, many of them family-owned and immigrant-owned — are among those that have fared the worst, said UCLA researcher Silvia Gonzalez.
“The majority of small businesses had only one to three months of savings to get them through the pandemic,” said Gonzalez, co-director of research for UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. “And that was probably lower for Latino businesses. And so we have these big structural issues.”
For example, many small Latino-owned businesses have limited relationships with banks, Gonzalez said, with owners relying instead on non-traditional loans from family, or on credit cards and personal savings for expenses.
All these things put small businesses in Latino neighborhoods at a disadvantage when it came to getting federal Paycheck Protection Program Loans last year, she said.
The lion’s share of PPP loans in California went to businesses in majority-white areas, according to a UCLA study last spring. At the same time, local majority Latino congressional districts that include neighborhoods like Huntington Park, South Gate and Compton were among those that got the least PPP assistance.
Researchers concluded it was easier for businesses with established banking ties to obtain the loans, which were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Besides not having relationships with banks, many small Latino businesses didn’t have the know-how and support to navigate the complicated application process, Gonzales said.
That proved to be the case for small businesses in Huntington Park, said the chamber’s Molina.
For small businesses like those on Pacific and in other Latino retail districts to survive and thrive, there need to be “more programs that encourage access to external funding,” said Gonzales.
That, and help for businesses that have yet to embrace technology to do so, she said, even something as simple as advertising on social media.
Instagram, Facebook and TikTok Helped ‘A Lot’
Some businesses on Pacific already do that. One is the Dulfi candy store, which sells bulk Mexican candies and party supplies.
“The first two months, everybody was scared. Sales were very bad,” said Raul Vega, who owns and runs the store with his wife and another relative. “We started doing deliveries. Then we made a website and we started advertising more and more on social media: Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. And that helped our business out a lot.”
Vega has another advantage: Dulfi is a relatively familiar name — there are Dulfi stores in Mexico — and that their customers aren’t so much casual drop-by shoppers as people buying candy with a specific occasion in mind, or street vendors buying for resale.
Some of the stores that have struggled most are the small five-and-dime discount stores that dot the boulevard, which depend almost solely on foot traffic.
Maria Franco, who runs a small shop called Big Discount 2, said she’s survived lean times before: Years ago, the owner of the large discount store where she worked had to downsize due to the economy. Now, they do business in this tiny space, and she’s determined to make the most of it.
“To get ahead, we have to keep reinventing ourselves,” said Franco, surrounded by festive-looking shelves packed with shiny Christmas ornaments. “I try to stock innovative things, things that people will need.”
Or at least, things people will want. From outside the store on the street, you can see the electronic flashing and hear the cacophony of musical Christmas lights, emitting a sound best described as simultaneously awesome and irritating.
“Lots of people like them, and lots of people get so annoyed that after an hour or two, they just want to take the whole tree down,” Franco said with a giggle. However, “they do have the option where they can flip a switch and turn them off.”
But by the time any of that happens, she’ll have long since made the sale.