From a retail fashion standpoint, many Los Angeles-area streets are paved with gold, from Rodeo Drive’s designer outposts to Robertson Boulevard’s trendy boutiques. But there’s no place quite like Santee Alley in downtown L.A.
The “Alley” stretches from Olympic Boulevard to 12th Street between Santee Street and Maple Avenue. It is part bazaar and part carnival — an enormous swath of tents, storefronts, balloons and neon-colored signs stretching over several city blocks. As shop owners and their staffers announce their wares, shoppers of all descriptions crowd the sprawling grid of narrow streets. The merchandise runs the gamut from overruns of familiar department store brands to designer knockoffs of clothing, shoes and accessories.
It is many things to many people — everything from a bargain lover’s paradise to a multicultural melting pot. It is also a cultural and historical touchstone for many Jewish garment-industry entrepreneurs who set up shop for their families’ future here while stitching together a neighborhood.
Although Santee Alley, with its more than 150 stores, plays like something that’s been around forever, its identity as a retail destination started taking shape in the late 1970s and ’80s, and then came to fruition in the 1990s. There is some debate as to who made the Alley what it is today, but one cannot deny that its character was shaped both by American-born Jews who originally came to the area as property owners and in jobs, and Iranian-Jewish immigrants who opened up shops after fleeing Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution.
At the dawn of the 1950s, Paul Mohilef’s father, Will Mohilef, and a business partner came to the area and bought two lots, at 1117 and 1121 Maple Ave. The younger Mohilef recalls that the once-quiet swath of land was a mix of industrial properties and small houses, some dating back to the late 1800s. Mohilef later followed his father into the garment business as a jobber — buying job lots of clothing from manufacturers and reselling them to small shops, while department stores and larger retailers bought direct from the factory.
“Historically, Jews have always been in the garment industry, either in retail or in manufacturing, so the evolution of Santee Alley in some ways was a continuation of something that had been happening in Europe and New York,” said Mohilef, 70. “My grandfather came in 1920 and started manufacturing, my father opened his manufacturing business in 1944, I started mine in 1967. Other Jewish families opened retail stores, some were jobbers, and some were manufacturers.”
In the late 1960s and ’70s, with its thriving garment factories, warehouses and jobber establishments operated mostly by a small handful of American-Jewish families, the area was strictly business-to-business. Mohilef’s neighbors, Len and Selma Fisch, 80, were wholesale merchants and, later, property owners.
During that period, the Alley was simply an alley, with trucks and cars coming and going through it to make deliveries and pick up shipments.
Selma Fisch believes that a Jewish work ethic shared by the Ashkenazi American-Jewish community was key during the beginnings of Santee Alley.
“Our group [consisted of] hard-working people who earned everything they had in life rather than inherit it,” she said. “We built these family fashion businesses from scratch [and evolved into] very smart businesspeople.”
Fisch explained that she and her peers realized they could continue building their fortunes by purchasing buildings and renting space out to other small garment businesses. Later, they constructed buildings on former parking lot space.
From Fisch’s perspective, however, the biggest change happened around 1981, when fellow jobber Rafi Oved (originally from Israel) put a rack out in front of his store. Although she asked him to put the rack away, she said she quickly changed her mind when she saw customers buying garments off his rack at warp speed. She and her husband, along with the other jobbers, decided to put out their own racks, and the alley was on its way to becoming “The Alley.”
The Iranian presence in the Alley has been transformative as well. Leading up to, during and after the 1979 revolution in Iran, as Los Angeles became a safe haven for 40,000 Jews fleeing the new Islamist regime, Iranian Jews came to the area to build their businesses and rebuild their future.
One of these successful immigrants is Behrooz Neman, who had a store in the Alley selling women’s closeout clothing. He said he later obtained the first master lease for a portion of the area in 1980 and then sublet the property to other Iranian-Jewish business owners.
“I can tell you for a fact that the Alley and the current garment district in downtown L.A. as you see it today would have never existed if there had never been an Iranian revolution in 1979,” Neman said. “Thousands of Iranian Jews were coming to L.A. every day, and many had no work, so I would help them set up clothing businesses in the spaces I subleased to them within the alley … and over the years it grew little by little until what you see today.”
Neman, who is now a real estate developer in the downtown L.A. area, said he was only 19 when he helped transform the alley into an Iranian-style bazaar with a plan to subdivide larger lots.
“Even though the larger properties were first owned by American Jews, we Iranian Jews transformed the alley into what you see today,” he said. “This way, we could get maximum use of the properties on both Santee Street and the alley. Iranian Jews being business-minded made this area prosper only because of their hard work over the years.”
Neman said he and his late business partner, Ebrahim Babajooni, were among the first Iranian Jews to set up shop in late 1979 in the alley area. He said Iranian-Jewish businesses there in the early years struggled to make ends meet. As a result, his partner and others began opening up their stores on weekends, when most businesses in downtown were closed.
“Back then, Iranian Jews [were] stuck at home and were bored on the weekends — they really had no Persian-language entertainment, and their families were young — so my partner Mr. Babajooni was among the first to open the store on Sundays, and then he encouraged other Iranian Jews to do the same since we began to sell more goods on the weekends,” Neman said.
Today, not only do Iranian Jews own businesses in Santee Alley and downtown’s Fashion District but nearly a dozen Iranian Jews also own many other properties in the area.
Another Iranian-Jewish immigrant, Bobby Nehorai, came to Santee Alley in 1989 as an employee and now has his own shop. He said he enjoys interacting with customers from all walks of life and all corners of the world, but added that he and many of his fellow business owners hope their children go on to college and careers that will enable them to enjoy a future that the 1979 revolution denied Iranian Jews of his generation.
“Many of us held degrees in medicine, law and [engineering] and other professions, but we could not practice [them] in the States, and we had to find jobs in [fields] where we did not need a license,” Nehorai said.
“We started downtown, as the garment industry was easy to get into. From there, our involvement in Santee Alley’s development took on a life of its own. The first Iranian Jews to arrive were really smart people. While we are grateful for what we have, and Santee was a refuge, we see what we’ve done as a stepping stone for our families. To some extent, I think some of the Ashkenaz families of the Alley had the same experience, encouraging their children and grandchildren to move from Alley businesses into other professions.”
The ’80s was a period of growth and transition. While Mohilef recalls that the customer base between 1981 and 1983 was primarily wholesale and trade — retail shoppers were only allowed to shop the Alley on Saturdays — this began to change. Families not only purchased and built more structures in the area, they also divided their space into smaller compartments, renting them to modest businesses and shopkeepers from many backgrounds. The result was a new shopping experience in Los Angeles, and people were coming in droves by 1989. At this juncture, the Fisches and their fellow property owners decided to form the Santee Maple Alley Association.
“The Alley concept came together officially because we wanted to [attain] security and maintenance of the buildings and streets,” Fisch said. “We knocked on doors and made calls to other owners, and asked them to contribute money for the cause.”
Fisch also credits U.S. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, then a California State Assembly member, for helping them fully transform the alley into a pedestrian shopping zone that was safe and user-friendly.
“Lucille Roybal-Allard advised us to make out a wish list,” Fisch said. “This was a good thing for us because it helped us define our needs as a group of business people working together. I learned quite a bit about what we needed to do to operate as an entity in the process of committing our needs to paper.”
Roybal-Allard, a Democrat representing the 40th Congressional District, said the association has been an “important asset” to the city.
“Recognizing the important role the downtown merchants play in our city’s economy, when Selma and other merchants asked for my help, I was more than happy to give them suggestions on how to organize and be more effective at City Hall when advocating for their needs,” she said.
During the 1990s, former City Councilwoman Jan Perry helped the Fisches and their colleagues ensure Santee Alley met with the various codes and ordinances established by the city when she was Councilwoman Rita Walters’ chief of staff. Later, during her 12-year tenure on City Council, she assisted the group with issues such as water drainage, street resurfacing, maintenance, lighting and other safety issues.
“Many of the owners are into their second and third generation of [property] ownership in Santee Alley, reflecting deep family investments, commitments and a desire to be relevant and grow and expand,” Perry said.
“It’s been interesting to have worked with the parents over the last 17 years, and then continue to work with their children and, in some cases, grandchildren,” she said. “Santee Alley is a truly one-of-a-kind experience that makes downtown Los Angeles unique. It is also a reflection of a thriving entrepreneurial spirit, resulting in commerce that is extremely responsive to the ebb and flow of our economy.”
Karmel Melamed writes the blog Iranian American Jews. Find it at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.