Community Voices
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The Croatian Cultural Center on Pacific Avenue. (photo: Lee Williams)

San Pedrans often reference parts of San Pedro as “above” or “below” Gaffey. Did you know Pacific Avenue was once the main street of San Pedro with its collection of businesses, restaurants, department stores, cafés, and walkable shops? I know people often talk about Pacific based on how quickly you can get from the 110 freeway to the coast, but a good part of San Pedro’s history has been lost to boarded up shops and barricaded storefronts. There were once car dealerships, a bowling alley, department stores, and entertainment venues that supported a vibrant nightlife. 

If you walk south along Pacific Avenue at 6th Street, you’ll see small glass blocks embedded in the sidewalk. These would be lit up at night, especially during “moonlight sales.” There would be massive search lights dancing in the sky, like giant Bat-Signals luring families to Pacific for late-night shopping bargains. It’s where you went to buy clothes, furniture, and that new gadget, the “television” — a small screen encased in a wooden box that took three or four strong men to move. Whole families would come down and the sidewalks were so packed you were elbow to elbow with all of your neighbors. You’d run into friends and family, and everyone would have a great time. 

Longtime San Pedrans Violet Moretti and Lillian Marovich Felando remember shopping at Tamara’s, Lewis’, and Hartfield’s, where you can still see the name spelled out in the tile entryway despite the security gates. In fact, most of these storefronts have beautiful tile entries that tell so much history with all they have seen and all those who’ve stepped over them. Lilyan Fierman had a store for women’s clothing, and there was another store called Fierman’s that sold men’s clothing. The mural next to the Warner Grand Theatre is dedicated to Lilyan. LaRue’s Pharmacy had a soda fountain, and Newberry’s lunch counter was where you could get a grilled cheese sandwich while your mom shopped.

Stores would stay open until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. You felt safe. You felt connected. You felt alive. Later, Pacific was famous for cruising. San Pedro’s car culture was on full display. Beautiful rides driving slow and loud. Lots of smiles and flirting, laughs and taunts, something to do after the drive-in movie, where Target now stands.

Del Amo Mall opened, our small shops closed, and somewhere in time, San Pedro shifted to simply thinking of Pacific Avenue as a thoroughfare and not an essential business corridor for eateries, entertainment, and shopping. We can’t go back in time, and as much as I would love to see retail stores along Pacific, we all know that business model has never been more difficult. What’s next for Pacific? What can we plan for Pacific without devolving into circular arguments about bike lanes and traffic?

I believe Pacific’s best days are ahead of it. We have two residential housing projects that could make an extraordinary difference to the safety of the area, the removal of blight, and create walkable streets we can enjoy again. These apartment buildings on 13th and 22nd could be part of a reawakening of Pacific that could transform so many nearby buildings into art studios, small eateries, creative spaces, and speakeasies — and can we please get another bakery downtown? Something family-owned that supplies our local restaurants fresh bread and fills the air with that unmistakable smell that makes you stop your car and follow your nose. 

I digress. I know it’s not popular, but if we could add housing to Pacific for teachers, dancers, artists, service providers at nonprofits, students, professionals, seniors, healthcare providers, and restaurant and hospitality workers in a way that keeps them local without having to commute, that would go further in improving their quality of life than simply raising their wages. Port Commissioner Anthony Pirozzi likens Pacific to Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, with medium-rise buildings and streets best experienced on foot. It would be beautiful if we can renew the old facades and have new construction mimic the art deco and classic beauty already on Pacific.

The San Pedro Chamber of Commerce is considering the ways we can activate the old Croatian Cultural Center on 7th and Pacific. CEO Elise Swanson has already cleaned up the windows, completed inspections, and started preparing the building to serve the community once again. The upstairs could house a number of service providers focused on small business, tourism, workforce development, employment services, and cultural programs while the downstairs could be flexible space for events, exhibitions, and San Pedro history. With so much happening in and around San Pedro, it’s time to give Pacific Avenue the attention it deserves. spt

Lee Williams

Lee Williams leads the Williams Group at Keller Williams Realty and is a member of the Board of Directors for the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce and the Boys and Girls Club for L.A. Harbor.

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