Driving through Main Street on a late weekend night, it’s hard not to notice how it has changed in the last few years. In what used to be a sleepy strip of vacancies, more than a half dozen bars — including Azul, Blitz, Fronteras, Boteco, Rabbit Hole, and Havana House — all radiate a musical beat into the early morning hours as their patrons spill out onto the sidewalk. Many of these bars opened with city support, receiving assistance from the now defunct Alhambra Redevelopment Agency.
In the early hours of last Saturday morning, a vehicle driving on the wrong side of the street led to an Alhambra police officer-involved shooting on Main Street near the clubs, highlighting an often-heard criticism that the city's party scene has triggered a crime problem.
Even before that happened, I was curious about the impact these clubs were having on the community. After several late-night visits; conversations with residents, employees, and police officers; and a review of crime data, it became clear to me that Main Street is an area with two identities. One identity manifests itself during the day and evening as the casual hangout where you can get good food, relax, and maybe have a drink or two with friends. The other is the late-night party, where a significant law enforcement presence and numerous nightclub bouncers are an acknowledgement of the potentially combustible mix of club goers, alcohol, and late hours. Although both identities contribute to an increasingly vibrant Main Street, there can be unintended consequences to this approach.
I started my research walking around the strip late at night on several recent weekends to get an on-the-ground feel for the area. What immediately stood out to me was the ethnic composition of the club goers. My expectation was that it would be similar to the city’s population of approximately 50 percent Asian, 34 percent Latino, and 10 percent white. Walking on Main Street, the reality was quite different.
According to Carlos Jara, a disc jockey at Havana House, the weekend Alhambra party crowd is 90 percent Latino. “They come from East Los Angeles, El Sereno, Rosemead, and everywhere but here,” Jara said. He explained that Havana House was the first club to establish itself on Main Street. Its reputation spread by word of mouth and social media, bringing in a Latino crowd that used to go to San Gabriel and Hollywood but started coming to Alhambra. Other clubs saw potential on Main Street and opened their doors.
But the Asian set has not abandoned the strip. While the clubs and bars are the favorites of the late-night Latino partiers, there are two coffee and tea houses where a younger Asian crowd gathers until late on weekends. If they’re not at the Hollywood clubs, which I’m told is a favorite destination, they are socializing at Honey Badger Cafe and Cha for Tea at Main Street and Garfield Avenue or a few nearby karaoke spots.
After walking along Main Street at night, I came to appreciate the strip's revitaliation. It's lively, and people, including myself, now consider it a late-night destination. “I like the way Alhambra has changed, it lets you relax after work and it’s nice to have somewhere to go that is close for the younger demographic," Kristen Trepanier, who has worked at the Starbucks on Main and First streets for three years, told me. "We’re still young and we have to enjoy our life.”
But as Saturday’s shooting appeared to demonstrate, the potential for violence remains in Main Street’s scene.
A review I started a couple of months ago of Alhambra Police Department statistics associated with bars in the area showed mixed results. Since 2010, overall crimes and infractions reported decreased, but this was due to a particularly sharp fall in the number of noise complaints or fights reported. Other crimes appeared to be essentially holding steady, as of September.
To manage the area's increased popularity, Sergeant Gerald Johnson said the Alhambra Police Department has increased its enforcement presence and utilized a “high visibility patrol” — where officers make sure you know they are there. And on a series of late-night visits to the clubs on Main Street, it did seem like every time I turned around I saw a police car either driving by or conspicuously parked on a side street.
Police are also trying to collaborate with local business owners to make the nightlife safer. “We’re able to come in and work together and have a partnership to make sure that the issues on Main Street with alcohol abuse and alcohol-related crimes are ultimately reported to us and we can actively go out and enforce it,” said Corporal Jasper Kim from APD’s Community Policing Section.
Taking into account police efforts, there is a risk in developing and maintaining a nightclub scene, where just one incident of violence such as Saturday’s shooting can not only threaten the livelihood of the clubs, but also the well being of the entire business community and the residents in the area.
Take for example the 1988 Westwood shooting. Westwood was then a busy retail area with a thriving nightlife, fueled by college students from nearby UCLA and residents in the surrounding areas. However, a gang-related confrontation one weekend evening left an innocent bystander dead. This tragedy played a major role in Westwood's subsequent economic decline, from which it still has not recovered after more than 20 years.
As I looked around Main Street at the end of another busy late weekend night, I saw an area that was developing, but still fragile, as evidenced by the vacancies in many of the stores, coupled with a persistent, uncertain economy. I remembered Westwood, and hoped the same thing would not happen in Alhambra.