By Matthew Reagan
Businesses in Northeast Los Angeles, already battered by the pandemic and recession, took another one-two punch in July. The blows have called their survival into question.
The first hit was on July 13, when the state of California largely reimposed the shutdown orders that had been in place in the spring. The second hit came two days later, when Occidental College announced remote instruction only this fall. Rather than 2,000 students living on campus, there will be 200. Rather than 400 employees, administrators and faculty members on campus each day, there will be a skeleton crew to maintain basic operations.
For local businesses, the absence of the Oxy community means the loss of thousands of customers at a time when activity is already depressed. “It’s just gonna be a drain,” said Michael Nogueira, the president of the Eagle Rock Chamber of Commerce, adding that the current business environment in NELA “is the worst in the history that I’ve ever seen.”
Nogueira’s business, Sir Michael’s Party Rentals, is affected by a lack of events at Oxy because the college would typically have a steady need for rental tents, tables, chairs and other party supplies.
Food and nightlife venues, especially along York Boulevard in Highland Park, will also be hard pressed to rebound without an influx of Oxy students. Tai Kim, the owner of Scoops ice cream, said that Oxy students generally boosted sales by about 10%. With business off by some 50% in recent months, the lack of an Oxy boost this fall will be wrenching. “You can see the huge difference around 7 to 8 p.m., the street used to be packed after the sun goes down, but now you barely see any people walking around the neighborhood,” said Kim.
At The York bar, a favorite among locals and of-age Oxy students, bar manager Thomas Froggatt said the absence of Oxy patrons will add to the sense of dread at many local businesses. Froggatt installed plexiglass barriers and rearranged the furniture at The York in order to reopen on July 9, only to see bars closed four days later, except for to-go food-and-drinks and outdoor seating. Now, even if bars are allowed to reopen before year-end, it will be Jan. 16, 2021 at the earliest before Oxy students return. “It’s like a domino effect,” said Froggatt. “I know a lot of Oxy people like to go to Block Party [a beer and shuffleboard joint] and then they would come here — so it sucks for everyone.”
At Mac ’N Cheese Rebel, a food truck that parks on York Boulevard between N. Avenue 50 and N. Avenue 51, owner Alfredo Gonzalez said that he has had an easier time than most food service venues because his business is, by definition, takeout. Still, Gonzalez estimates that up to a fourth of his total sales come from Oxy students, with students accounting for a large share of his late-night sales. “When there were bars, there was definitely more action going on — but people still do come out,” said Gonzalez. “It’s just a little bit, a little bit tame.”
At Delia’s Restaurant, dubbed “the crown jewel of York Boulevard” by the Oxy campus newspaper in 2016, Oxy students have long been daily patrons, said Mark Flores, the son of owners Delia and Adolfo Flores. It’s scary to think of the neighborhood without the students, he said, though he’s hopeful that locals will step up to help ensure the restaurant’s survival. “I feel like people are trying to make an effort to stop in as much as they can to offer to help do their parts and make up for [students] not being here,” he said.
Over at June Jung Art, a tattoo studio on York Boulevard, co-owner Rob Redcay is less optimistic. Redcay said that Oxy students are typically frequent customers, with a student getting a first tattoo often coming in with a friend for support. In the past four months, however, the studio has been open for only three weeks and there’s no telling when reopening will be allowed or when students will move back to Oxy, he said.
Redcay’s comment about the unpredictable and indefinite nature of the crisis was echoed by many business owners. The recent surge in Covid-19 cases in LA County only underscores the uncertainty.
“I think that most economists would agree that to really get the economy back to normalcy, you need to resolve the public health crisis,” said Andrew Jalil, economics professor at Occidental. Jalil also said that that fear among local consumers of in-person purchases coupled with the absence of students will create severe challenges for local businesses for the foreseeable future.
The York manager Froggatt sees it the same way. “Generally, it’s been terrible,” he said. “It’s gone on longer than I would’ve thought – and now there’s no end in sight.”