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After decades of economic decline, hopeful signs for Westwood’s recovery

By Kylie Reynolds

Sept. 19, 2010 4:22 a.m.

It was rare that gangs were ever seen in Westwood Village in the 1980s. Known as a safe and affluent neighborhood, the village was the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night.

Yet a gunshot on the evening of Jan. 30, 1988, brought the issue of gang violence in Westwood into the spotlight.

Karen Toshima, a 27-year-old graphic designer, was celebrating a recent promotion with a night out in Westwood. Walking along Broxton Avenue with a friend, Toshima was hit by a stray bullet fired during a conflict between rival gangs.

She died the following day at the UCLA Medical Center. An investigation that went on for more than a year resulted in the conviction of Durrell DeWitt Collins, a member in the Rolling 60s Crips, for Toshima’s murder, according to the Los Angeles Times archives.

In the years following Toshima’s death, Westwood, a once-thriving Los Angeles hot spot, dwindled in popularity. The decline in the village’s attractiveness was attributed to the shooting, but it took more than a bullet to change a village that had prospered for decades into a forgotten neighborhood.

A myriad of issues affected Westwood in the 1980s, including the development of competing communities, higher rents, less suitable merchants and a lack of parking, said Steve Sann, chair of the Westwood Community Council.

“It was not one thing, and it was certainly not the killing of one young woman, that did this to Westwood. It was a perfect storm … of factors that came together at a similar time,” he said.

Westwood’s Rise

As UCLA welcomed students to its new campus in September 1929, Westwood Village welcomed its first residents. Since its inception by Edwin and Harold Janss, Westwood aimed to serve the college community.

The village grew to contain five grocery stores, as well as both affordable and upscale department stores, including JCPenny and Bullocks Westwood.

In 1955, however, Westwood underwent its first changes when the Janss brothers sold their remaining shares of the village. The remnants of the Janss Investment Company were purchased by Manuel Borenstein, who Sann said is responsible for turning Westwood from a college town into an urban entertainment zone.

From 1966 to 1975, the number of movie theater screens in Westwood went from three to 17. Westwood rose as the hub of entertainment in Los Angeles.

“Westwood became, along with Manhattan, New York, the largest concentration of single-screen movie theaters in the world,” Sann said.

Crowds would wait in lines for up to six hours to see a film on a Westwood screen. The streets became so congested that, for a time, they were shut down on weekend nights, and Westwood became a pedestrian village.

“The crowds were huge and business was booming,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, UCLA alumnus, former city councilman for Westwood and current Los Angeles County supervisor.

Westwood’s Decline

But the movie industry, which made Westwood into the epicenter of entertainment in Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s, also led to its demise.

“Everybody, to this day, associates the change or the decline in Westwood Village to that shooting. In fact, the decline had started before the shooting,” Yaroslavsky said. “It was largely the (fault of the) economics of the motion picture industry.”

Westwood met competition in the 1980s with the development of new communities, including Third Street Promenade, Universal Studios CityWalk and the new AMC theaters at the Century City mall.

With a severe lack of parking and a traffic problem, Westwood began to lose its appeal to the new developments.

“All of a sudden, a lot of movie audiences migrated to Century City, and people who wanted a nice dinner went to Third Street Promenade instead of Westwood,” said John Sandbrook, a senior administrator at UCLA for 30 years.

And while the number of visitors to Westwood decreased, the shops that had moved into the village to accommodate movie-going audiences remained. High rents imposed by landlords forced out many of the stores that had once served the university community and replaced them with movie theatres and yogurt shops, said David Friedman, president of Sarah Leonard Jewelers, one of the oldest stores in Westwood.

By 1975, Westwood had no grocery stores, everyday clothing stores or bookstores.

“It was a mix of retailers that did not meet the needs of the community. It became this fast-food movie-driven culture,” Sann said.

Compounding the issue was the expansion of UCLA’s Ackerman Union, which provided the campus community with many of the services they previously could acquire in Westwood, such as groceries and books.

“You began to lose university-oriented clientele, which used to create a demand for local-serving uses,” Yaroslavsky said.

Westwood faced reduced patronage from both outside visitors and from those who lived in the community.

“The analogy I use of what was going on in Westwood by 1984, is the analogy of the person who looks like the picture of health, but unknown to them, they have cancer,” Sann said. “By 1984, many of the factors that would later contribute to the decline of Westwood were already prevalent.”

Reviving Westwood

When Ralphs Fresh Fare opened in 2001, it was the first grocery store in Westwood in 27 years.

Ralphs was just the beginning of a return of some businesses to the village, including Best Buy and Trader Joe’s.

“It is really important that the village cater more to having services and things to do for the people who are going to be living and staying right here and going to school,” said Clinton Shudy, owner of Oakley’s Barber Shop, the oldest business in Westwood.

Currently, the development of a Target store at 10861 West Weyburn Ave. ““ below the Ralphs and across the street from Trader Joe’s ““ is underway, according to a West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission meeting’s minutes. Sann said the Target is expected to be completed by early 2012.

“Having a store that offers a full-range of general merchandise … will bring back a lot of shopping that has drifted away,” he said.

Westwood property owners are also coming together to form a business improvement district, which would improve maintenance and security in the village.

Although an improvement district existed in Westwood for seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was unsuccessful.

However, Sann said he thinks property owners are willing to give it a second shot and expects it to be operational by Jan. 1, 2011.

Yaroslavsky said the village is not what it used to be, but neither is anywhere else.

“Westwood is still a very vibrant place. … Maybe it’s unfair of us to expect the village to return to what it was in the ’60s.

It’s never going to happen,” Yaroslavsky said.

Even now, however, some establishments that serve the neighborhood have returned.

“Step by step, more of the neighborhood folks will come back in,” Yaroslavsky said.

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Kylie Reynolds
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