Photo by Kathleen Clark

Even if you knew Lawry's California Center during the years when it flourished, it was kind of hard to explain it to out-of-town friends. But you had to explain, because you so often ended up taking them there.

Why? Because it was so inexplicable. There on Avenue 26 off the I-5, hard by the Los Angeles River, near the old Taylor freight yard, was a restaurant and a factory that packaged spices and seasonings – particularly a “seasoned salt” that now sounds like a very retro condiment. But surrounding this Cypress Park spice mill were nearly 20 acres of gardens and ramblas, places to eat and drink under palms and ficuses, patrolled by strolling mariachis. It was one of L.A.'s favorite places to imbibe margaritas and share a sunset.

In its kitschy way, Lawry's was exquisite: a particularly wonderful slab of Old California hokum, evoking a pre-statehood past confined, historically speaking, to the Zorro movies. It was a tribute from Lawry's gastronomic empire – which also included some marmoreal Restaurant Row beeferies – to what its Anglo founders wished Old California had really been like. And even as the surrounding community turned increasingly Latino in the 1970s, Lawry's Center became more a point of local pride.

Then – I'm not exactly sure why, maybe because of falling demand for rare beef and exotic table salt – it closed in 1991. This demise spurred much fuss over what would replace the California Center. It already had become encircled by sign lots, junkyards and other dismal sites – Van de Kamp's abandoned and decaying original bakery, for instance.

From the outset, visionaries from Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy expressed hope that much of this discarded factory landscape – which includes the bounteous Taylor train yards – could be turned into riverside park and recreational land, bringing several contiguous miles of greenbelt to our innermost city.

The original problem with that vision was that the area was going in the other direction, spiraling downward to ever-lowlier industrial uses. And then there was the question of who would pay for this greenbelt as well as the competing hopes to develop this centrally located wasteland for the purpose of providing jobs and services to a working-class minority community.

According to 1st District Councilman Mike Hernandez, one of the very first bidders for the Lawry's property wanted a wrecking yard. Using his broad discretion as that area's councilman, Hernandez said no. He also said no to a proposed police driving academy.

Excuse me, who was that again? Mike Hernandez? Wasn't he the guy whom everyone considered dead meat when he refused to resign after getting caught in a cocaine bust last year? At the time, many colleagues turned their backs, and his entire career seemed doomed. Perhaps his political career remains in doubt, but Hernandez hung tough and completed a court-approved rehab program.

We hadn't heard much about him since, but it turns out that he's been on the job. An intriguing proposal for the defunct Lawry's Center is the result, and it could become the keystone in that long-sought arch of downtown river green space.

What the City Council just approved unanimously – at the urging of Hernandez – is a compromise, a project that is supposed to provide more than 200 new full-time retail jobs and save the landscape as well. Its realization has forged a bizarre local alliance: between Home Depot, the past masters of big-box retail, and, of all institutions, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which has, over 20 years, saved many upland areas from development. Both will now share the old California Center grounds.

As the councilman visualizes it, the Conservancy will be saving and maintaining the landscaping, much of which will become a public park, while the Home Depot will hire local people and supply the houseware needs of a population that, according to Hernandez, has been short on such retail outlets.

“We had to balance the need to preserve the area with the need for jobs,” says Hernandez's chief of staff, Ed Reyes. The Conservancy, on the other hand, possibly aware of the small percentage of the inner-city population that uses its outlying resources, has taken a symbolic step by siting offices in an area it is still learning how to serve.

Hernandez has some even more visionary plans in the wings. He'd like to see the old California Center's restaurant become a public culinary school, run by either the Community College District or L.A. Unified. He says that funding to study this proposal is now available.

This project would be a centerpiece for any political résumé, but it's more impressive for Hernandez, who was first immobilized by his drug problem, and then by the scandal of its discovery. Until now, City Hall consensus regarded Hernandez as a pretty much inanimate force, pending his promised retirement next year. Now there's this accomplishment to contend with.

Even before Hernandez went down for the count, he and his staff began stringing this project together. First there came $100,000 from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to study the proposal. Then contacts with the Conservancy. The Friends of the L.A. River's big downtown convention early this year added additional momentum to the cause of riverbank redevelopment.

Along the way, Hernandez has clinched heavy-hitting allies on this project, including county Supervisor Gloria Molina, state Senator Richard Polanco and State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. Now that Home Depot is committed to putting in $22 million, while the Conservancy is said to be in for $7 million, Hernandez may be able to leave office with a legacy, instead of just a past.

High-Flying Living Wage

When it first emerged, the living-wage idea raised howls of protests from merchants, business leaders and Mayor Richard Riordan, who predicted it would ruin business in the city.

But as first enacted, the law gave cold comfort to many minimum-wage workers it was supposed to help. The city's semi-independent departments – Airports, Harbor, and Water and Power – refused to enforce the living wage fully.

This week that changed. The City Council unanimously gave the living wage some teeth. And this time, no one protested.

By a 14-0 vote, the council closed a gaping loophole that had allowed the city's outside contractors at the airports to continue paying minimum wage for city jobs performed by privately employed workers.

The action means that around 3,000 people holding airport jobs such as baggage screening, wheelchair services and luggage retrieval would be eligible for wage increases to roughly $7.50 per hour with benefits or $8.75 an hour without benefits. A final council vote is scheduled for November 25.

Judging by the more than 300 living-wage backers who filled City Hall, this idea's time had come. Nobody spoke against the ordinance, and the council's most conservative members strongly supported it.

“Not since the rent-stabilization laws of the 1970s has the city created an ordinance of such importance,” orated Councilman Joel Wachs, who backed both measures. Wachs added that he hoped the living-wage rules would eventually apply to “all government contractors.”

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who initiated the ordinance, noted that it was the conditions of low-end airport contract workers that had sparked her original support of the living wage in 1996.

Several contract employees testified they'd worked for up to eight years at the minimum wage (now $5.75 an hour). Maria Rodriguez, a single-parent baggage screener, said she “was risking my life every day” on her job with no sick days.

“It's time for the airlines to do the right thing,” added L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras, who also sits on the Airport Commission. He asserted that the airlines that paid their contract employees the least were making the highest profits in their history. United Airlines, for example, he said, earned $14 billion last year.

Much of the behind-the-scenes lobbying was coordinated by Madeline Janis-Aparicio, who heads the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Locals of the Service Employees International and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees unions also were heavily involved. Janis-Aparicio reported that even Mayor Riordan had acquiesced. (His veto of the original ordinance was overridden by the City Council.)

“The people have been heard,” she said triumphantly.

And not just at the airports. The council also voted to invalidate an attempt by the Board of Water and Power Commissioners to ignore the ordinance – even though that board has since agreed to follow the law. So far, only the Department of Harbors hasn't been challenged on the issue. But as one city insider put it, “I think they're getting the message.”

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