By Melina Paris, Culture Reporter
Sometimes it takes someone outside the scope of a situation to recognize the obvious. A friend and I were recently discussing the merits of the Retro Row shopping district in Long Beach and the prospects for revitalizing downtown San Pedro. My friend, a design engineer from Bellflower, made this observation:
“I can point out one big difference that mirrors each community,” he said. “Retro Row has an LGBTQ center right in the center of everything, while Sixth Street houses, as it were — The Garden Church.”
His point is that both places have a cultural draw that contributes pedestrian traffic to the neighborhoods. The green space of the Garden Church, which was there before it became the Garden Church, was intended to be a spot punctuated with garden sculptures in the shape of prehistoric animals.
However, it was not intended to be a magnet for pedestrians. A faction of San Pedro’s civic leaders and boosters promoted the transformation of downtown San Pedro into a bonafide arts, culture and entertainment center anchored by a credible arts or academic institution. San Pedro nearly got both when Marymount College established a satellite campus in downtown San Pedro and philanthropists Chuck and Marylyn Klaus donated a downtown San Pedro building to the college to become an arts institution.
The downtown campus was to include Marymount’s Sixth Street facilities, a music program housing the Olguin campus of San Pedro High School, and the Marylyn and Chuck Klaus Center for the arts on Sixth Street.
The combined facilities in the historic district of San Pedro provide undergraduate and graduate students with instruction, internships and a cultural connection to the already existing creative corridor downtown. And more importantly, they provide that pedestrian draw that could enliven downtown Pedro’s retail base.
For more than 20 years, San Pedro retailers looked at the redevelopment efforts in the city of Long Beach with a mixture of admiration and envy. San Pedro retailers didn’t necessarily want to look like Long Beach, but they did want the vitality that comes with a transforming downtown.
For decades, retailers in San Pedro’s downtown core complained of having to struggle due to lack of foot traffic along Pacific Ave and Sixth and Seventh Street corridors. Historically, San Pedro retailers have frequently been likened to fruit starving for nutrients on the vine.
The 2002 Urban Land Institute report on San Pedro noted that San Pedro needed to take advantage of its status as a destination for entry-level homebuyers by building more housing units. The report’s authors also argued that if San Pedro retailers were to survive, it was essential to establish the downtown area as a pedestrian destination. And for this to occur, “the area needed to be repositioned as a boutique shopping area with specialty tenants catering to tourists and local residents beyond Gaffey.”
After 17 years, a flurry of new housing units (though not necessarily broadly affordable) have been built between 2005 and 2019 and the resulting crop of niche retail businesses appear to prove the report’s authors right.
Random Lengths News recently checked in with a few retail businesses in San Pedro and Retro Row Long Beach to assess the retail environment this past year and capture their thoughts on the contributing factors to their success in 2019.
Home and Coffee
If anyone understands the power of synergistic draw of dissimilar but complementary businesses, it would be Kerstin [pronounced Kasten] Kansteiner, the landlord of three longtime staples on Retro Row: Portfolio, on Fourth Street and Cherry Avenue, Berlin Bistro, about a mile west at Fourth Street and Elm and between the two establishments, the Art Theatre. In all, Kansteiner has been serving Retro Row clientele for almost 30 years.
The first thing she told me was that Retro Row has worked hard for a long time to establish itself as a successful independent shopping district.
Brick and mortar retail has taken a hit from online shopping that doesn’t seem to be threatening the shops of Fourth Street. None of the retail spaces are vacant, a measure of success that even the thriving Second Street shopping district in Belmont Shore cannot claim.
This is where the creativity of Retro Row merchants paid off — they don’t sell products that can be found online. Their merchandise tends to be reused, recycled and vintage — not something you can order from Amazon. The pioneers of Retro Row years ago identified upcycling as their niche and the direction they wanted to go, but along with that certainty came a commitment to providing unusual experiences for the community. For instance, Retro Row recently hosted a makers mart for independent business owners who will have pop-ups in the stores along the street.
Kansteiner said the clientele has shifted. It used to mostly be young consumers who couldn’t afford to buy a sweater at Banana Republic. Now, it’s become fashionable to have upcycled items. It’s no longer a taboo or “I can’t afford more so I’m going less.” It’s about consciousness for the environment.
She noted that the sidewalks of Retro Row are also populated by tourists from other cities and countries, shoppers who understand that you can go anywhere else in the world and see the same stores, over and over again.
“Retro Row provides something unique from Long Beach, from eateries to local food and merchandise,” Kansteiner said. “That’s not your mall-type situation. We see a wide variety of consumers. I do remember the times when people were afraid to come to Fourth Street because the area was not deemed safe, we’ve completely lost that. People are sitting out in parklets, dining. Thirty years ago they would have been afraid they were going to get shot. It never even comes up anymore.”
Kansteiner said The Center, by their own doing, have made themselves a larger part of the community. Porter Gilbert is executive director of The Center and he is on the Fourth Street business improvement board [which is an all-volunteer board of Retro Row business owners], which holds its board meetings at The Center.
“Thirty years ago The Center was just another entity on the street, but not as intricately involved as it is now,” Kansteiner said. “Because the street is so diverse, the merchants can celebrate that with The Center.”
For example, the Art Theatre coordinates films with The Center. They have the annual Q-Film Festival and Kansteiner said there are so many things happening at The Center that have a positive effect on Fourth Street. The businesses also draw help and advice from The Center and it has become part of Fourth Street. “Porter stands out,” Kansteiner said, “and he’s made this all happen over the last 10 years.”
Fourth Street has made a commitment to restaurants that when they hold events, the street will not book food trucks. Kansteiner explained that while food trucks have become a popular feature of street events, Fourth Street has always sought to protect their restaurants. This past month, a new feature was added to Fourth Friday. The street was blocked off to make room for a large table that sat 40 to 50 people. All of the restaurants on Retro Row contributed to the community dinner.
“It was great to see everyone chip in,” Kansteiner said. “Many times we coordinate events and we make sure they don’t coincide with busy times for the restaurants. We try to be respectful; our meetings are open and it’s a democratic process where we’ve always tried to include everyone. The good thing with Fourth Street is you can be as involved or as little involved as you like.”
When Fourth Street merchants need something, they honor a commitment to contact community partners first before going elsewhere or online. The Art Theater does annual events like a silent film with a live score and when tickets are sold, they include the event plus a dinner seating with any participating dinner restaurant on Fourth Street for a special price. It gives everyone a piece of the pie, rather than having people take up parking just for the one event and then leave to go elsewhere. They can have dinner and shop and see a film all in one place.
ULI Report Lights the Way
San Pedro’s brightest retail star did not have a lot of the advantages enjoyed by Long Beach Retro Row, but it did capitalize on San Pedro’s natural assets that the 2002 ULI report cited.
Cathie Goldberg opened House 1002 after first leasing a booth in Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles right after the DIY-themed warehouse opened eight years ago.
In an interview with Random Lengths, Goldberg described her initial struggles as what comes with being the new girl on the block and being unfamiliar with the community and its culture.
She recalled her experience of looking for a space to rent on Sixth and Seventh streets, but ultimately found them to be too expensive for what she needed.
“But this space became available,” Goldberg said. “This space was three times bigger than what I saw on Sixth and Seventh and cheaper.”
Goldberg said she fell in love with the art deco architecture, built in 1922, and the cavernous space it provided — 6,000 square feet. “I was just in awe of the emptiness and largeness of it,” she said.
“It was kind of a dream come true to be able to live and work all in the same place.”
Goldberg admitted feeling initially that Pacific Avenue was a bit too “dicey.” She’s not the first owner of a new business to express that sentiment. Some of Southern California’s most persistent social problems — homelessness and drug dealing — get higher-than-usual visibility on Pacific, and some merchants don’t stay long.
On the other hand, Goldberg noted that she has developed a significant number of repeat customers since she opened eight years ago. Along the way she has met many newcomers to San Pedro, and her clientele has changed with the influx of new homeowners and others who are moving to San Pedro. She’s noticed the young families and artists from Venice, Echo Park and Los Angeles who have been priced-out of other parts of the city due to gentrification. Goldberg reported that sales have solidly doubled over the past three to four years as her customer demographic has evened out to about 50 percent designers and film people and 50 percent local community.
One of Pacific Avenue’s characteristics that has been most helpful to Goldberg’s business is its constant flow of traffic, which has been enhanced by the much-maligned road diet initiated by Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets initiative. Goldberg doesn’t believe she would have the same amount of pedestrian traffic on Sixth or Seventh streets without the initiative, and she credited the road diet with reducing the average speed on Pacific Avenue, allowing drivers to see more. She said much of her business comes from people who see sidewalk displays of her merchandise as they drive by.
“I hope more people will open more retail business along Pacific Avenue,” Goldberg said. “People could park once [like Retro Row] and walk about to see everything.” From Goldberg’s perspective, having more unique shops would give the community an eclectic artistic vibe — and that draws people.
Goldberg has considered opening another store on Pacific Avenue with higher end goods because she said the market in San Pedro now warrants that. She sees a lack in “that next level of sophistication,” which she would like to bring to San Pedro. Goldberg does own another business, The Yard, at 120 N. Pacific Avenue at First Street, with a more industrial type of merchandise.
The vintage emporium owner said a lot of retailers have struggled on Sixth and Seventh streets. Having cheaper rent and making an effort to reach out to designers and film companies about her merchandise has helped her.
“If I were in Venice or LA business would be impossible,” Goldberg said. She said that she is one of the last of her kind—she owns a large store and she hasn’t been pushed out because she controls her own space.
Word of mouth has helped her, as well as being a female business owner. Goldberg has found a kind of kinship with other women entrepreneurs who want to help each other. She loves being able to buy goods and sell them in a creative space and San Pedro is the perfect fit for her right now.
Community Staples, Fun and a Sense of Humor
Nicholas Romero is the marketing manager of Badfish Clothing Company, which has two San Pedro locations, on Sixth Street and on Summerland Avenue near Western. He closed a downtown Long Beach location after a few years.
Romero reports the company’s traffic patterns have been pretty consistent over the past few years. He believes that traffic has been up in downtown San Pedro because it has more to offer, especially on Sixth Street, which is reflected in the declining vacancies.
Badfish sees much heavier traffic patterns at the downtown location when compared to foot traffic on Western. Rather than set up a clone of their Sixth Street shop on Western, they instead turned it into Badfish Printshop, which does custom work. The shop also carries skateboards and accessories, which provides for the needs of San Pedro, especially skaters at the nearby skatepark in Peck Park. Romero said that his nimbleness as a retailer has allowed Badfish to experience incredible growth.
Romero foresees Sixth Street (at least on the retail side) as becoming a destination for young shoppers. Badfish Clothing and Urban Feet have been a favorite of young locals for years. Meanwhile, he’s been joined by other youthful businesses options like the Machine Art Studio, Rox Shop, Coastline Shop and JDC Records. People go from shop to shop making purchases or checking out events or galleries. Things are heating up and Romero cited downtown San Pedro events such as Dia de Los Muertos, Hot Import Nights, Christmas Parade and others as contributing to downtown San Pedro’s retail revival in general.
Romero says Badfish customers come from all over San Pedro, from Palos Verdes Peninsula and the South Bay to the west and Long Beach to the east. Badfish even sees clients from the San Fernando Valley who come to shop while film crews are on location. But the majority of its clientele are locals who want products that fit their lifestyles or represent them or where they come from.
Back in Long Beach, other than the many volunteers that come through The Assistance League there are only two paid positions at the shop. One of those positions belongs to Tammy Kline, the store manager, who said business was fantastic in 2019.
The shop has recently begun featuring better, more interesting donations, but keeps an eye on prices and the budgets of core clients. Basic items of clothing start at $5 and most housewares are inexpensive. They’ve also started using Instagram to promote special items. It’s been a changemaker for them with great responses from followers. It’s a good thing as they will be closed over Christmas for renovations, with a tentative reopening Jan 13.
Kline said Retro Row is a unique location because they service the community at large, to purchase quality second-hand goods at well below retail price. On the other hand, many shoppers come to Retro Row because it’s so trendy and “kitschy”— the one who looks for that one of a kind item from 1980 that you can’t find anywhere else.
They draw a broad base of people, with many clients that have been with them nearly the whole time they’ve been open, with several living within walking distance. Kline said it’s pretty neat to have those long-standing relationships with the community.
Kline said that it’s an honor and pleasure for the Assistance League to help serve people who are part of the LGBTQ community at The Center, which sits directly across the street from the vintage shop. They appreciate knowing that there’s a great place on their street and in the community that is helping people in the ways that The Center does.
“Having The Center on our street not only ups our fun level but it adds to the heart of this community,” Kline said.
The Thrift and Vintage shop often serves as a place for friends to meet before moving to their next destination. And Kline said it adds another layer of fun and to how many things you can do by parking your car once.
Otto Henke is the manager of Urban Feet. Henke’s business overall was good in 2019, with sales fluctuating one to two percent, up or down year to year. In consideration of the success — or not of business in 2019, he added there seems to be a positive attitude going around that business related things are improving in downtown.
The Urban Feet customers range from longshoremen to families with babies to high schoolers. The store sees clients from “all parts of San Pedro and up to Western Avenue, Palos Verdes and other neighboring cities.”
Jennifer Hill is the proprietor of Songbird Boutique and the Fourth Street board president. Hill with her husband also own Sneaky Tiki on Retro Row, which they opened 14 years ago.
While Hill sells what she loves, she candidly presented the challenging side of her business. For Hill, 2019 started really well, then sales dropped off around June. She’s not certain why but she is hanging on and with Christmas upon us, the sales she relies on are beginning to catch up. Her clientele covers all ages, from children to seniors, who are looking for the unique and affordable and who appreciate locally made items.
Hill echoed Kansteiner about The Center, saying it’s a positive thing and the director is very involved. Retro Row merchants share a sense of camaraderie.
“The merchants here realize that when we work together we are benefitting not just ourselves but the whole street,” Hill said. “Retro Row is a destination. People don’t necessarily come for one store, they come for the whole experience of Retro Row. They can do that here because it’s a small street versus other areas which are larger and you can’t cover it all in one visit.”
Hill said that the restaurants do tie in as much as possible, with businesses working together to find good ways for its restaurants to participate. And how was that community dinner?
“[It] was wonderful,“ said Hill.