Sunday, May 15, 2011

A happy day at Nosh when Susan McKenna, the owner, and her friend, Marisa Giuffre, serve tea time to a group of young writing students.

After Four Years, Hundreds of Lunches and Thousands of Customers Later, She’s Pulling Back the Zucchini Tortes and the Tandoor Chicken and Shutting Down Nosh’s Doors Despite that Susan McKenna Rekindled Our Community Spirit

By Diana L. Chapman

Four years ago, Susan McKenna, with a kick of Aussie flair, opened up a tantalizing café in downtown San Pedro, filled with tasty goods --  ginger tandoor chicken, sausage rolls and hazelnut bread pudding.

It was a place friends gathered from across San Pedro – and a café that even brought a gaggle of interest from outsiders. The LA Times did a food review as did the website, JoeEatsLA, bringing many customers from across Los Angeles to taste Nosh’s goodies.

The café was full of bright promise, decked with a burst of lime-green trim and a charming atmosphere of warm friendship accompanied with creamy lattes and tasty soups. Once again,  Chef Susan baked up a community-oriented place that brought locals, residents, port officials and business leaders,  together to talk business, tighten friendships and build dreams. She did this too at her former business, the Corner Store on 37th Street which she ran with Marisa Giuffre.

But on May 27, Nosh will close its doors. Despite the dreams that downtown San Pedro was about to undergo a revival, the economy tanked – and downtown seemed to slip back into the drab scene that has haunted it for more than twenty years, which has doomed several small businesses.

Although it’s hemmed by the Port of Los Angeles, the largest port in the world – with a myriad of cruise ships docking a few blocks away, downtown’s business life remains grim as ever – a historic repeating pattern of getting a small burst of life, then dying again, sucking the life out of many, small and struggling businesses.

It’s not as terrible as when I moved here, but it still has an atmosphere that smacks of slow, rotting deterioration. I’ve never understood why our city officials and business leaders don’t comprehend that folks don’t want to visit a crusty gem. They want a glittering gem – a place of beauty, clean with plants, trees, colorful flowers, inviting benches, thriving businesses and easy parking.

The heart of our town needs this to happen or we will continue to lose upstanding entrepreneurs like Susan, who has our community in mind. She created a popular skinless sausage festival with Slobodan Dimitrov, opened two businesses that tightened bonds in our community and worked tirelessly as an advocate of White Point Preserve.

She just recently put out a three foot high glass vase at Nosh to collect $1 bills to save and restore the Korean Bell and embraced struggling residents around her giving them small jobs and sometimes feeding those who had no money.

“I am proud of what we did,” Susan said. “And I’m ready to move on,” alluding to after a break and rejuvenation she’ll decide what to do next.

While she blames no one for closing, she agrees that downtown needs much more than mere cosmetic stimulation to come back to life.

“I can’t single-handedly change downtown San Pedro,” she explained during an interview at her cafe. “I look out the window and I see no trees on my streets. The sidewalks are stained and not clean. I think we as a community need to be more forceful about parking.

“Starbucks closing (on 6th and Centre Streets across from Nosh) was terrible because it brought in traffic. It tells me something about downtown San Pedro.”

That tells me a lot about downtown too and I blame Los Angeles, the giant we are tied to. Our fate is tied to the bureaucratic nonsense. Nosh’s closing seemed to especially come due to the horrific parking downtown run by -- Los Angeles. The first three years the café was opened, it was always difficult to find a space, which visitors struggled with but seemed to accept.

But as soon as Los Angeles raised parking fees along with Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s approval (who is running for the 36th District), there were suddenly plenty of empty paces right across from Nosh on Centre Street – which told me there was a rapid decline of customers to the area.

A woman came into  Nosh one afternoon recently complaining profusely about the parking, saying one ticket means people “won’t come back.” When my girlfriend and I were lunching there the other day, she left the table three times to fill the parking meters.

But a recent study done for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment agency blamed the businesses for the trouble, calling them lackluster. I can’t think of anything further from the truth.  As soon as parking prices quadrupled,  business began to lag all over downtown.

Every day, I dream of a town no longer connected to Los Angeles, because the people who live and work here would make it a success. I’ve seen them heroically take on projects – only forced to face a tremendous obstacle course from Los Angeles officials who just don’t seem to understand we want our town to be so much better.

The whole downtown situation is déjà vu for me, having witnessed the same story over repeatedly.

When I moved here more than twenty years ago, downtown was shabby but there was a spirit that it was about to undergo its renaissance just as it seemed when Nosh opened.

Two friends opened up small businesses – a coffee house and a gift shop. They were ecstatic with all the brimming promises that downtown was renewing its life and spirit and would be back again to its heyday – filled with strolling customers.

It never happened and within a few years, they both went out of business along with scores of others.

To me, Susan’s closure of Nosh after faithfully working to make a go of it isn’t about her failure – it’s about downtown’s failure. I suspect if we changed the following things, it might get better:

·        Eliminate all parking fees in this economically depressed area, but post signs with three hour time limits so cars aren’t left there day and night.

·        Beautify this place: plant trees, put in flowers and paint a little for god sakes! Add benches. Clean the streets. Create a place we all want to be. But keep it up. Past attempts to put planter boxes to beautify the area died when the plants died.

·        Downtown property owners who haven’t, please take advantage of the funds that exist with the Community Redevelopment Agency. Don’t leave all the work to your renters. Team up with them. Bring back the pulse and heartbeat to our downtown.

·        Convince the Port of Los Angeles to carry their theme of towering, blue lighted palm trees into downtown to provide a continuum between the cruise ships and the area that so badly needs business. Not only will this beautify the area, but it will provide a psychological link between the port and downtown.

·        Maybe this is a crazy idea, but close down Sixth Street to through traffic, allowing trolleys to shuttle folks to and fro to our gems from the Cabrillo Aquarium, Ports O Call, the cruise ships, the Maritime Museum, the Lane Victory, Point Fermin, White Point and all our other amazing sites – to gear up business.

I’ve witnessed so many plans by so many good people trying to make downtown a decent place – but unless our city officials back us a 100 percent – we can forget about breathing life back into a deflated horse.

We will all be lucky if Susan goes back into business somewhere else – but I can guarantee one place it won’t be. Sadly, it won’t be downtown San Pedro. That says a lot about what we need to do as a community, if we want the heart of our town to beat back to life.