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Michael Hiltzik: The Toy District on the brink

December 21, 2009 |  3:00 am

The last time I visited the Toy District in downtown Los Angeles it was to meet with one of its patriarchs, Charlie Woo, who told me times were tough.

That was at Christmastime 2003. Times haven't gotten easier for many of the hundreds of merchants selling wholesale goods out of this 15-block neighborhood. Entrepreneurs like Woo, whose giant Megatoys warehouse looms over the district like, well, a giant looming thing, have the scale and flexibility to survive. The smaller guys? Hard to say. But the unsanitary street conditions in the district won't make things any easier for them.

As I observe in my column for Monday, the city has let the Toy District drift downward with little interference. One downside of the Business Improvement District system, referenced in the column, is that city officials avoid playing a role in it, for fear of looking like they're manipulating the property owners. Yet this means that a small number of property owners can wreck an economic development scheme for broader swaths of the city.

Speculation that the Toy District will be absorbed by healthier retail neighborhoods is both encouraging and depressing -- for as long as the city insists on playing no role, that process will take years longer than it should.

The column begins below.

This being the yuletide season, I made my way to the downtown Los Angeles Toy District the other day, because nothing says “Christmas” to me so much as stepping over piles of garbage to cross the street and shouldering my way past overflowing dumpsters in busy alleys.

The Toy District is in a bad way. Established by immigrant entrepreneurs in the 1980s as the center of a thriving wholesale import-export trade in toys and other gewgaws mostly from Hong Kong and China, it has been losing its verve for several years.

Business is down sharply again this year, continuing a trend that surfaced even before the economic freeze of 2008. Global margins on low-end merchandise, the district’s stock in trade, have been cut to the bone. And what was once its near monopoly on such goods nationwide has evaporated, as competing wholesale centers have sprung up everywhere from New York to Vernon.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik