Los Angeles’ Little India finds itself at crossroads

Photo Credit: https://www.artesiaindia.us/

Indian Americans’ go to place is losing out to online shopping and nearby Indian grocery stores

Los Angeles’ Little India is at the crossroads with many Indian Americans in Southern California cutting back on visiting the commercial strip in Artesia, in favor of online shopping and nearby Indian grocery stores.

Merchants on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, which has been Indian Americans’ go to place since the 1980s, were struggling even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Some have adapted, modernizing their offerings and tapping the internet to build a following.” it said. “Others have watched their wares gather dust or their tables stay empty.”

“They have to make it more festive and more welcoming,” Seema Choudhary, a Montessori preschool chief executive who emigrated from New Delhi in 1997, was quoted as saying.

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The Little India Center, a two-story complex that housed henna artists, threaders, photographers and bridal studios, is an empty hulk today, according to the Times.

“The question facing Little India goes beyond how to reinvent itself,” it said. “The undercurrent in many conversations is: Does it have a reason for existing?”

Once, customers came from Bakersfield and the far reaches of Orange and Ventura counties. Even if there was an Indian restaurant or supermarket near their homes, the quality and breadth could not match what they found crammed into a few blocks in Artesia, the Times said.

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Hollywood picked up on Little India too, the daily said. Madonna has browsed the racks at Sona Chaandi, an 11,000-square-foot emporium offering everything from richly colored silk saris to leggings, jewelry and eyebrow threading .

The store’s clothing and accessories have been featured in Disney’s “Jessie,” Fox’s “9-1-1” and most recently Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever.”

Before the pandemic, revenue was dipping slightly at the store opened by Mala Malani in 1980. In 2020, as Covid-19 raged, it plunged by 75%. She was sitting on $1 million of inventory and considered selling the store.

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Faiz Baig, president of the Artesia Chamber of Commerce, owns an insurance agency on Pioneer Boulevard. He estimates that 10 shops on the strip have closed since the pandemic began. Foot traffic is down by about half, he said.

To avoid more closures, the city should give grants or low-interest loans to business owners and put a moratorium on evictions, Baig was quoted as saying. But he said the onus is also on Little India merchants to “keep up with trends.”

“Customers want items they see on Instagram or television, and some stores and restaurants can’t provide it like the internet can,” Baig said.

Little India’s origins date to 1971, when Balkishan Lahoti began selling spices and Indian staples out of an Artesia garage. Other Indian merchants set up shop on Pioneer Boulevard to cater to the growing Indian population in Cerritos, which borders Artesia on three sides.

By 1986, there were about two dozen Indian businesses on Pioneer. A decade later, the number was about 90.

Over the decades, Little India has had a troubled relationship with the Artesia city government, which has blocked efforts to install “Little India” signs and has wrangled with merchants over traffic and parking, the Times said.

Today, Cerritos and Artesia combined have about 5,300 residents of Indian descent, according to the US census. Los Angeles County has about 109,000 Indian American residents, including sizable clusters in Torrance, Santa Clarita and other suburbs. About 55,000 Indians call Orange County home, including 13,000 in Irvine.

These communities have grown large enough to support their own stores, making a trip to Little India unnecessary for all but the most specialized items, such as holiday decor, the Times said.

Paratha Grill owner Gurpal Singh blames Little India’s struggles in part on traffic backups on Pioneer Boulevard and a lack of parking, as well as the city’s refusal to allow “Little India” signs on the 91 Freeway.

City leaders have said they want to embrace all ethnicities and not just highlight Little India.

As Indian Americans emerging from a pandemic resume old shopping habits and develop new ones, Little India merchants must give them a reason to come to Artesia, Singh said. “As Indians are returning to markets and restaurants, we must let them know we exist,” he said.

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