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A Turn for Century

JANICE HAHN HAS LEARNED that being a councilwoman carries only so much weight outside her district. Two weeks ago, Hahn, as the chair of the Commerce, Trade and Tourism Committee, was invited by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy to gauge the mood and working conditions of airport hotel employees. No sooner had Hahn begun speaking with workers in the lobby of the LAX Four Points Sheraton than she was surrounded by security staff.

“They were very, very aggressive with me,” she told the Weekly. The councilwoman claimed that she had identified herself but was quickly escorted out of the hotel along with a member of her staff, a LAANE activist and a union organizer.

“They were rude to me,” she said. (Calls to the hotel requesting comment were not returned.)

Hahn spoke to the Weekly about the incident last Thursday during a rally for the Coalition for a New Century, a grassroots organization that is trying to obtain city investment for the neighborhood immediately outside the airport.

The coalition is spearheaded by LAANE, the social-justice group responsible for the passage of L.A.’s landmark living-wage law. It has launched this project, members say, to revitalize the Century Boulevard corridor by reducing crime and by raising living standards of workers employed by LAX and the area’s hotels — many of whom live in nearby Lennox, Inglewood and Hawthorne. The Coalition for a New Century plan calls for replacing the area’s strip clubs with a mini–conference center, movie theaters, shopping centers and family-oriented businesses, while encouraging hotel owners to allow their workers to unionize.

Last Thursday, about 500 union activists, clergy members and supporters assembled at twilight in front of the Four Points, then marched around the Hilton, where several hotel workers greeted the marchers with high-fives and shouts of encouragement as security staff looked on. After a six-block walk along Century Boulevard, the group stood before the LAX Westin to hear speakers, including former Inglewood City Councilman Danny Tabor, and Hahn, who wore an Ironworkers union windbreaker and recounted her Four Points ordeal for the crowd.

“If they did that to me, a councilwoman,” Hahn said, “I can only imagine how they must intimidate you, the workers!”

The coalition had publicly kicked off its Century corridor campaign on February 3 with a press teleconference. The Rev. Altagracia Perez sounded a theme that would become predominant.

“People are embarrassed when they have to pick up friends from the airport,” she said, “because of all the adult businesses and motels.”

Kurt Petersen, the organizing director for UNITE HERE, the hotel-workers union, elaborated.

“We want to partner with the city and industry,” Petersen said. “This is the gateway to L.A., and the first thing people see are strip clubs.”

Thursday’s gathering, however, was less a partnering gesture than a muscle-flexing exercise from Petersen’s union — most marchers wore UNITE HERE’s red T-shirts and directed their chants at the hotels along Century Boulevard.

Laurie Hughes, executive director of Gateway to L.A., a consortium of LAX-area hotels and businesses, said her district-improvement organization has been active in the beautification of Century Boulevard since 1998, but that the coalition has not contacted it about joining forces.

“They’re adopting our mantle of cleaning up the neighborhood for their own purposes,” she said. “It’s a drive to build their union.”

The New Century campaign is a bold — and risky — gamble. For one thing, it’s going to be hard selling the idea of Century Boulevard as the gateway to anything. Most travelers reach LAX by the Century or San Diego freeways; to many people, an airport is a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible. It’s difficult to imagine tourists wishing to linger along Century, even if the Century Lounge (“Live Nude Nudes”) is replaced by an Appleby’s.

A coalition white paper blamed low wages and civic neglect for the corridor’s violent crime, which the study claims is five times higher than the rest of the city’s. However, in a telephone interview, Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, denied that the business community regards the immediate LAX area as crime-ridden. (Even Hahn told the Weekly that she didn’t believe the area’s scattered half-dozen strip clubs constituted a red-light district.) He also said the coalition faces an uphill fight in remaking Century Boulevard as a tourist destination.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Kyser. “It’s not a walking street. You have heavy traffic with trucks moving in and out of the post office [distribution terminal], there are already restaurants in the hotels themselves — and there are the planes. If you go past the 405 [freeway], it’s solid development and residential areas. Where would the conference center go?”

There’s also the question of gentrification. How can the city help raise a neighborhood’s quality of life without also raising its property values to the point where a predominantly renter community is threatened with higher rents or complete displacement?

Hahn said that “the spirit of this City Council is not to gentrify this area,” but any safeguards against inadvertently punishing the same low-income workers the coalition represents need to be spelled out now.

“I’m not saying we’ll get a Third Street Promenade here,” UNITE HERE’s Petersen had said at the teleconference, the one point on which labor, business and government will probably agree.