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No Room for the Inn 

The fight over a vacant lot in South L.A., where many rooms rent by the hour

Thursday, Aug 21 2003
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

The scene is so L.A.: a line of red-tile roofs covering tidy stucco houses, most painted off-white or ochre, with an occasional pistachio green or bubblegum pink tossed in for fun. The windows are arched, in mock-Spanish style. A few — only a few — sport black iron bars. Each front yard boasts a carefully trimmed postage-stamp lawn; some include inflatable plastic pools that are filled from the garden hose to give children relief from 100-degree summer afternoons.

Here on LaSalle Avenue the street is lined with willowy Chinese elms. A couple streets over begin the famous rows of tall palms, extending west toward the beach and north to the freeway.

Take LaSalle to the end and you’re on Florence, where things are a bit less tidy. Storefront churches mingle with auto repair shops, and much of the commercial strip consists of intriguing but empty and ramshackle 1930s streamline buildings. This area could stand an infusion of new business. Charles Williams wants to give it some — he is planning a 58-unit motel for his vacant lot at the corner of Florence and LaSalle.

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“There’s a great demand here for nice clean rooms,” Williams explains. “When you get out to Inglewood you start seeing the Marriott and places like that. People staying here deserve the same things that people in Gardena and Inglewood have.”

“Here” is Manchester Square, in the middle of South Los Angeles. Williams’ lot on Florence sits five blocks west of the spot where Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and beaten on live TV in the midst of the 1992 violence sparked by the Rodney King verdicts. This area, already devastated by gang killings and drug dealing, was further traumatized by the rioting that burned out small shops and continues to scare off investors and builders looking for places to open new businesses.

While the rubble still smoldered, neighborhood activists organized to make sure the crime magnets that made life dangerous for people just trying to get to school or work would never reopen. First on their list were liquor stores. Second: Motels. Residents of the neat stucco houses and leaders of the storefront churches are now working hard to make sure Williams’ new motel never gets built.

“A motel in this neighborhood becomes a center for prostitution,” says Pastor Roger Smith of the Southwestern Church of God. “It’s a breeding ground for it. Along with this prostitution comes the drug dealers. The alcoholism.”

South Los Angeles is known for its motels, and it’s not because the area is a tourist attraction. Many of the tiny lodgings were built in the 1930s and have never been upgraded. Rooms often rent by the hour. Women wearing revealing dress and the desperate looks associated with drug addiction can be spotted in front, usually at night, but often in broad daylight. A few miles to the east on Figueroa, notorious for its prostitution, motels have been hit with city nuisance abatement orders and even injunctions, but the illegal activity persists. For a few years, the city had a moratorium on building new motels. But that just increased demand for the older, troublesome lodgings.

A new variety of hotel/motel sprung up on Western Avenue near 41st Street several years ago. At that corner sit three massive, fortress-like structures, with no windows on the street. One of them sports an American Automobile Association symbol. But even there, on a recent Saturday, a woman in a tiny skirt and revealing tank top stood outside in full daylight, beckoning to any male driver who cruised by.

A check of directories shows 37 hotels and motels within a three-mile radius of Florence and LaSalle. No major visitor attractions are in the area, although Hollywood Park and the Forum are not far. Motel density is higher in Hollywood, downtown and Santa Monica, areas more traditionally associated with tourism.

Williams, a real estate agent who owns two Magic Carpet Motor Inns in South L.A., first presented neighbors with his plan for a new three-story Magic Carpet nearly two years ago. It didn’t go well.

“There was just howling and screaming,” Williams says. “One lady said it was going to block the sun. Another one said it was going to block the view. The meeting was that kind of tone. They kind of fed on each other.”

Williams says no one in the community has shown any interest in listening to his explanation about his motel, how it will meet a great demand in this part of the city for clean rooms and show investors that new business can thrive in South L.A. “I don’t want those girls out front wearing skirts that you can see half their butts,” he says. “We don’t allow hanging out. My motels are on the order of a Best Western or a Quality Inn. But they don’t listen. They just don’t want a motel.”

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