Roman Finarovsky often visits Plummer Park in West Hollywood, where he plays chess and cards and talks about politics with his fellow Russians. But the 76-year-old West Hollywood resident, a native of Ukraine, says the park has become increasingly deserted in recent years.
“I go to funerals almost every week,” Finarovsky says, sitting on a bench at the park on a recent afternoon. “Elder Russians are passing away and the young ones are moving to other neighborhoods. Soon there will be no Russians left in this area, and that’s really sad.”
As large retailers replace family-owned stores previously run by former Soviet Union immigrants and young Russians move to cheaper areas, many Russian expats are worried they're losing the familiarity of the neighborhood that reminded them of a home they left decades ago. The residents referred to the area as Little Odessa.
Between 2000 and 2010, West Hollywood's population of Russian-speaking immigrants fell nearly 30 percent to 3,872 people, according to a city study.
In recent years, the Santa Monica Boulevard area has witnessed a development boom near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, which attracted luxury condominiums, trendy stores and hip restaurants.
But since development spread westward toward Fairfax Avenue, many Russian business owners — the majority of them have family-owned groceries or apparel stores — became concerned that they would be forced out of their familiar neighborhood.
“There are plenty of new development near La Brea and they are going to suffocate us slowly,” says Pavel Khostikian, who has owned Cherry Garden grocery store, near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, since 1993. “They are going to take over our businesses sooner or later.”
West Hollywood’s Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard area had become home to many Russian-speaking expats — the majority of them Jews who fled anti-Semitism in former Soviet republics — between the 1970s and the 1990s. Others came to the region during the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Many of those who moved to Los Angeles sought assistance from Jewish nonprofit organizations, which helped the newly arrived families navigate government programs, locate affordable housing and find social security programs near their offices in West Hollywood.
As more Soviet expats settled in the area, Russian-owned businesses started popping up along Santa Monica Boulevard between La Brea Avenue and Crescent Heights Boulevard. The storefronts of restaurants, bakeries and pawn shops announced themselves with signs and posters in Cyrillic. The smell of freshly baked potato bread spread along the street. The grocery stores offered rye bread, pierogis and caviar, often streaming Russian MTV for their customers.
In his 2003 book West Hollywood (Images of America), author Ryan Gierach writes, “The predominantly renter, Jewish, gay and senior citizen residents of the progressive-minded area determined to step out of the shadows of nearby communities and create a city of their own. West Hollywood has been a beacon of hope, drawing refugees from Russia and around the world to its tolerant streets.”
Over the years, the neighborhood offered everything a Russian soul could ever ask for. A Russian version of sauna, known as banya, became a place to socialize and discuss news with fellow expats. Several associations, social and literature clubs emerged to cater to Russian-speaking engineers, veterans and writers. After spending several decades in West Hollywood, the majority of immigrants continued to watch Russian television and read Russian newspapers. Many never learned English.
Victoria Corbett, 40, who owns Victoria’s Touch apparel store near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Gennesee Avenue, says that every year, she sees fewer Russians in her shop.
Her family moved from Ukraine in 1980. About 20 years ago, her mother opened the store, which sells women’s apparel, kitchenware and souvenirs. The family enjoyed a prosperous business until recently, when the stream of customers declined.
“We used to see a crowd of customers on Fridays and Saturdays, and now our store is half empty on weekends,” says the Beverly Hills resident, adding that her business has experienced a 40 percent decline in revenue over the last four years. “Many Russians moved to the [San Fernando] Valley and Marina del Rey. Russian businesses are dying in this area.”
Michelle Vishnevskiy, who was raised in West Hollywood, says she also has noticed her neighborhood has lost its familiarity, especially as it begins appealing to new residents.
“West Hollywood is becoming a prime location,” says Vishnevskiy, who now lives in the Hollywood Hills. “It’s becoming the city center. The prices are so high that Russians are forced to move to the [San Fernando] Valley and other places.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, babushkas in colorful scarfs strode along Santa Monica Boulevard pushing wheeled bags between doctors’ offices and grocery stores, searching for a snack of herring and pickled cabbage.
A tiny door in a stucco building led to Odessa Grocery, near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ogden Drive. A row of cardboard boxes, stuffed with apples and tomatoes, sat on the floor. Glass shelves held a stack of oversized chocolate boxes, instant coffee and cigarettes. Several matryoshkas, or stacking dolls, decorated a shelf next to trays with homemade cakes and blinis. A paper sheet made out of Russian rubles dangled from the ceiling next to a sign that read “Insured by Mafia.”
For some Russian expats, the Santa Monica Boulevard area is associated with the Soviet era, faceless storefronts and outdated buildings that are long overdue for reconstruction.
Igor Lerman, who has been running Heaven Books on Santa Monica Boulevard for 21 years, says he is not surprised young people leave Little Odessa.
“Many Russians avoid this place because they see it as mestechko, a 'province,'” says Lerman, a 66-year-old Russian Jew, who moved from Ukraine 24 years ago.
Many U.S.-born children of Russian immigrants assimilate and speak fluent English, he says, and avoid associating with the Russian-speaking neighborhood.
“Many Russians who were born here don’t want to speak Russian,” Lerman says. “That generation is lost for us.”
Justin Brezhnev's parents immigrated from Ukraine in 1989, but the 24-year-old was raised in West Hollywood. He decided to leave after graduating from UCLA.
“West Hollywood doesn’t have an entrepreneurship community and a lot of co-working space,” he says. “That’s why I decided to move to Venice.”
Ilya Netes, a pharmacy technician at Spaulding Pharmacy next to Studs Theatre, a complex that streams gay porn, says the growing LGBTQ community is prompting some Russians to leave.
“I don’t care if you’re straight or gay,” the 23-year-old resident of West Hollywood says. “But older Russians judge gay people before getting to know them. Some of them, especially the elder [Russians], don’t want to live here because of gays.”
Among Studs’ neighbors down the street is Russian grocery store Teremok Deli. Its owner, Irina Riskopina, says she doesn’t want her children to be exposed to the gay culture.
“There are a lot of billboards in this area with male couples,” the 52-year-old Burbank resident says. “I feel uncomfortable when they advertise that. I don't want my children to see that. It’s one thing when you were born with it and another thing when someone tries to bring you into it.”
But Omar Fiori, a manager at Studs, says Russians and gays live in harmony, adding that the misunderstanding between two groups is in the past.
“Older Russians used to be not very friendly,” he says. “They would look at you like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But that has changed. They are friendly now.”
Still, not everyone agrees that West Hollywood has lost its appeal to Russian speakers.
Vishnevskiy says she regularly visits her former neighborhood for grocery shopping.
“Only here can I buy this food,” Vishnevskiy says, as she filled a plastic bag with frozen pelmeni, a Russian version of dumplings. “This place feels like home.”
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Alexander Gurfinkel, a political consultant who graduated from University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy a few years ago, says he had no hesitation moving back to his native neighborhood from the USC campus.
“I shop a lot at the Russian stores and I enjoy the food,” the 27-year-old says. “Some stores have a basic representation and very Soviet in their nature, but they appeal to certain people who don’t necessarily care about it. Many of my relatives live in West Hollywood, and to me that was an obvious choice to move here.”
Even so, many agree the change in West Hollywood’s Russian community is inevitable. Lerman of Heaven Books stood in the middle of his store, holding a glass of whiskey, on a recent Friday afternoon, looking out the window over the Hollywood Hills. He said he planned to retire soon.
“Once this area was run by Polish Jews, and then they were gone,” Lerman says. “Everything changes, and the Russian neighborhood will change, too. But the show must go on.”