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Saturday, Aug 13, 2022
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SPOTLIGHT

CHRISTOPHER WOODARD Staff Reporter Just six years ago, driving down Sepulveda Boulevard meant running a gantlet of prostitutes, drug dealers and vagrants hanging out at all hours. The boulevard was so infamous for prostitutes, in fact, that vice officers were arresting “johns” from all over the world who had heard about the area and traveled to Van Nuys specifically to check it out. Residents living nearby often would look out their living-room windows to see the streetwalkers and their “dates” parked in front of their homes. “There was a visible prostitution problem,” said Flip Smith, a tire retailer on the boulevard. “Quite a bit of graffiti, and a lot of businesses tending not to take good care of themselves weeds in planter boxes, litter.” Sick of seeing his neighborhood deteriorate and concerned that the decline would scare away customers, Smith took action. The owner of Flip’s Tire Center went door to door to businesses on the boulevard with a simple suggestion: Let’s get together and clean up the mess. In December 1992, merchants did just that. The owners of motels, auto-parts stores, service stations and other merchants along the boulevard joined forces to create the Sepulveda Business Watch. Assisted by the Los Angeles Police Department, City Council and Van Nuys Homeowners Association, the merchants managed to drive away the prostitutes and drug dealers. Weeds and roadside litter have since been replaced by flowers, and graffiti by freshly painted walls. “It looks 10 times cleaner. Sepulveda Boulevard is one of the cleanest, safest streets in the Valley,” said Smith. The clean-up effort, which has grown from a dozen participants in the beginning to some 300 today, has been such a success that the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley and the LAPD are looking to expand it throughout the Valley. “Flip put this together so effectively that they really, for all intents and purposes, wiped out crime in that neighborhood,” said Bill Allen, president of the Economic Alliance. “The question was, ‘How can the alliance help roll this out to other areas?’ ” Because Smith didn’t have the time to meet individually with every merchants’ group in the Valley, the alliance decided to print a brochure that explains the program and a handbook that provides merchants with do-it-yourself guidance. The brochure is in the final stages of production and the handbook should be available in about a month, Allen said. Don Schultz, president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Association, said that although Sepulveda Boulevard never enjoyed the same success as nearby Van Nuys Boulevard, it had a solid business district before falling on hard times in the 1980s and early ’90s. “Van Nuys Boulevard was a mecca for a lot of businesses before the advent of the indoor shopping malls,” said Schultz. “Sepulveda Boulevard also had businesses, but mostly it was how you got across the Valley.” Sepulveda actually stretches all the way from Mission Hills on the Valley’s northern edge, over the Sepulveda Pass, to Hermosa Beach on the south. For years, the boulevard was equal parts thoroughfare and business district. But as shopping malls grew in popularity, commerce along Sepulveda declined, and prostitution and crime became rampant, Schultz said. “At its worst, if you were driving home and you lived off Sepulveda, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see groups of cars stopping to pick up prostitutes, like they owned the whole boulevard,” he said. Schultz credits the LAPD’s vice officers and the Business Watch program with turning around the boulevard. “It’s rare when you see a prostitute on the boulevard nowadays,” he said. LAPD Capt. Kyle Jackson, who oversees the vice detail in the Van Nuys Division, said Police Chief Bernard Parks was so impressed with the program he has decided to expand it throughout the city. “When people care about their community, it sends a message to others that someone is watching, that this place has value,” said Jackson. Conversely, when people don’t take care of a neighborhood, criminals move in and shoppers and businesses flee. Jackson said even if a merchant is in competition with a neighbor, everyone benefits from working together to improve their neighborhood. “You want a business environment where customers feel welcome, where they feel safe,” he said. Harold Peskin, manager of the Carriage Inn, a hotel on Sepulveda, said that in cleaning up the boulevard, small changes made a big difference. For example, the merchants convinced the L.A. City Council to create no-parking zones in front of the many hotels that dot the boulevard, which made it difficult for prostitutes to solicit business. The group also worked with the phone company to reprogram the boulevard’s pay phones so they could only make outgoing calls. As a result, drug dealers could no longer use them to take phone orders. Meanwhile, Peskin, taking a cue from Smith, organized the hotels and motels into a separate coalition to police their own problems. “We said, listen, you can make a quick $50 (renting rooms hourly to prostitutes) but in the big picture you’re going to be out of business (due to increased police enforcement),” he said. “A lot of it was just educational.” His group pointed out to the owners that their hotels and motels could be marketed as affordable alternatives to the $150-a-night hotels in the area and that they could make more money catering to tourists wishing to visit Universal Studios and Magic Mountain, which are about 10 miles and 28 miles away, respectively. Smith said one of the most effective ways he has found to encourage business owners to clean up their acts has been to simply take a snapshot of any blight, such as weeds or litter, and send the picture and a letter to the owner, pointing out the problem. “Most people just fix it,” he said. “They don’t want to be a bad neighbor.”

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