VAN NUYS, Calif.-The sights on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys weren't pleasant. Prostitutes hung off curbs that served only to stop the trash from blowing to some other part of town. Homeless people huddled against walls painted with gang slang and warnings. Pimps and drug dealers used ragged telephone booths as offices.
Not an enticing place to operate a tire dealership.
But it wasn't always that way, according to Philip ``Flip'' Smith, owner of Flip's Tire Center, a retail/commercial dealership in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
``It used to be a great place to have a business,'' said Mr. Smith, who has owned the Sepulveda Boulevard outlet since 1972.
Now he more frequently calls it ``my boulevard'' instead of ``Sepulveda Boulevard.''
And no one corrects him.
About a year ago, he decided he'd had enough of the trash, the graffiti, the crime, the prostitution and the drugs.
Using thousands of dollars from his dealership and countless hours of his own time, Mr. Smith has pulled 250 businesses together to form a neighborhood organization that has cleaned up the graffiti, chased out most of the criminals and given frightened customers a reason to return to the once-decrepit shopping district.
They are called the Sepulveda Boulevard Business Watch, and they are fast becoming a model for neighborhoods that want their streets back.
Watch volunteers regularly comb a seven-mile stretch of the boulevard between Burbank and Lassen boulevards and paint over all of the graffiti; now customers don't feel the threat of gangs.
They built an irrigation system and planted flowers down a 600-foot-long median strip-a $20,000 project almost entirely completed with donated materials and volunteer workers; now shoppers aren't afraid their parked cars will be vandalized.
They got the local telephone company to shut off incoming calls to the street's pay phones; now drug dealers must find other ``offices'' to complete their business.
They cut each other's grass and sweep each other's sidewalks; now customers don't have to wade through broken glass and cigarette butts to shop.
These changes were possible because the business owners on Sepulveda Boulevard rediscovered a time-honored truism: There is strength in numbers.
``I got tired of trying to do things through City Hall,'' Mr. Smith said. ``This is our neighborhood; we're the ones who know what needs to be done.''
Mr. Smith said he learned about many of the ideas that have been successfully implemented in the business watch after listening to a speaker from Philadelphia during a mayor's conference last year.
Although Mr. Smith said the deteriorating business district never hurt his $5 million-a-year tire business, he knew something had to be done.
``I have always had loyal customers, but if things didn't change, it would have begun to hurt me,'' he acknowledged.
So the third-generation tire dealer began organizing the business watch. The initial reaction of area business owners was skeptical, but not entirely discouraging.
``When I first went to all the businesses, they all said it was needed. They all said it wouldn't work, but they all said it was worth trying,'' Mr. Smith said.
But he persevered, and today, the group mails its newsletter, which he produces, to more than 700 people and holds monthly meetings in a nearby furniture store-which has plenty of chairs to seat everyone.
At the meetings, the group's members discuss clean-up programs-Who will sweep the sidewalks? Who will cut the grass? Who will watch the storefronts for prowlers?
``With 50 to 70 businesses coming to the meetings, I can see how this is turning into a networking session, too,'' he added.
Although he freely admits the business watch has taken up a lot of his time, Mr. Smith said it has been worth the work because the appearance and safety of the neighborhood has improved.
``The people were afraid to step onto Sepulveda Boulevard. They aren't afraid anymore,'' he said.
And with stories about the program in the Los Angeles Times, the San Fernando Valley Daily News and countless newsletters, his tire business has improved. ``It's the best (public relations) I have ever had,'' he said.
Flip's Tire expects to post $400,000 in sales in what is usually the weak month of March, Mr. Smith said.
The dealership, which sells Kelly-Springfield, Nitto and Remington passenger, light truck and truck tires, has five service bays and offers commercial road service with a seven-vehicle fleet. Less than 25 percent of Flip's Tire revenues are generated through service operations, Mr. Smith said, noting that recently his wholesale business has grown to account for a third of his tire sales.
With the street clean again, the neighborhood group has turned its attention to more long-term problems. Members currently are attempting to write a piece of legislation that would allow police departments to impound the car of anyone caught using the services of a prostitute.
``(The business watch) will never end,'' Mr. Smith said. ``There will always be concerns these businesses should face together.''
Mr. Smith said he believes similar programs will work in other areas of the country, and he offered the following suggestions to would-be organizers:
Create a subcommittee of people capable of identifying the needs of the community and who in the area might be able to help satisfy them;
Collect a list of business owners, their home and work telephone numbers and addresses;
Form a network of ``block monitors'' who can quickly notify other people of upcoming meetings and events;
Solicit as much volunteer help and donations as possible to complete projects; and
Approach the local police department and government officials early in the process to let them know what is being planned and to find out how much support the group can count on.
Don't be reluctant to approach local officials, Mr. Smith said. ``They love these things. You make the politicians look good by giving them a cause to rally behind.''
And finally, don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the project, he stressed.