For the small business owners of Burbank’s beloved Magnolia Park neighborhood, the battle to save their funky little Mayberry from extinction is ongoing. But for Donna Ricci, the fight has already been lost.
“It’s not as cute anymore,” she laments with a pouted lip as she scans the interior of her Magnolia Boulevard shop, Geeky Teas and Games. “’Cause I started packing.”
Though she’s currently on the hunt for a new space, Ricci has all but lost hope for the future of her business, a combination board game store, loose-leaf tea shop, and cat rescue. And yet on this Monday evening, she hasn’t given up hope for her neighbors, many of whom are similarly in danger of being pushed out of the neighborhood due to rapidly rising rents. Several shops that helped make up the fabric of the neighborhood, including the horror-themed Creature Features and Pinup Girl Boutique, have already shut down. Meanwhile, near the intersection of Magnolia and Hollywood Way, a Target Express opened back in April, portending a more chain-store-friendly future.
Outside in Geeky Teas’ parking lot (which houses a life-size TARDIS), a standing room-only crowd jockeys for chairs and shade from the blistering Burbank sun. Standing on a makeshift stage, the evening’s emcee, Konstantine Anthony—onetime Burbank City Council candidate and member of the city’s Transportation Commission—implores his audience to take action.
“I know coming out on a Monday for two hours in the sun is not easy,” he says. “It’s not fun. It’s work. [But] if you want something good, you have to work for it. All right?” A smattering of applause is drowned out by the steady whoosh of rush-hour traffic.
Billed as “Save Mag Park,” the scrappy town hall gained traction thanks in part to a video commissioned by local business owners. Shared on social media by such high-profile devotees as comedian Patton Oswalt, actor Wil Wheaton, and director Joe Dante, the video uses a variety of talking heads (and some wistful piano music) to make the case for preserving the district’s idiosyncratic appeal. At least by grassroots campaign standards, the six-minute clip has become a viral success, with Facebook views in excess of 350,000 and more than 5,900 shares.
“The thing that really got us is that Dark Delicacies is in danger of going away,” says Darling Nikki’s Salon owner Ashley Largey, who helped spearhead the video and social media outreach. “We’re just a bunch of, like, thriller and horror nerds that got together and decided to make this documentary thinking that like two or three thousand people would see it, and now it’s into the hundreds of thousands.”
Dante, who frequents stores such as the horror book and gift shop Dark Delicacies and the now-defunct Creature Features, sees the current effort as just the latest iteration of a city-wide problem.
“I grew up in New Jersey in the ’50s, and that’s always been a nostalgic place for me because it’s very, very similar to the kind of places I grew up,” he tells me by phone. “There’s a number of people who have made it their business to sort of give the place some character, like a real neighborhood. And those kinds of neighborhoods in our town are rapidly being swallowed up by corporate, faceless glass buildings.”
The atmosphere at Monday’s town hall is quietly positive, even as some of the initiatives mentioned are—for the layperson at least—somewhat convoluted. A few of the more straightforward ideas include a proposal to re-zone Magnolia Park as a historic corridor; another would lobby to have the neighborhood’s small businesses recognized as cultural landmarks. Crowdfunding is also inevitably mentioned.
At least in terms of generating interest, the town hall seems an unqualified success. Attendees at the event include Burbank City Council members Sharon Springer and Bob Frutos and Burbank public information officer Simone Sawyer-McFarland, who briefly takes the mic to offer both resources and a reality check for business owners. “[The state] does not allow for any kind of arbitration, mediation, or any other kind of controls on rents,” she offers, referencing one of Anthony’s action items that would bring in arbitrators to help negotiate rents. “So that is kind of off the slate, unless you wanna go to your assembly people and get that overturned.”
After the presentation, attendees mill about and talk in small groups as the evening cools and the shadows lengthen. Roughly half migrate to the sign-up sheets, scrawling their names and contact information across oversized sheets of yellow paper (the next day, Anthony reports that 102 people signed up to volunteer). A handful venture inside Geeky Teas and Games to browse for what may be the last time.
Seated with Ricci in a snug corner of the store after the event, I ask what she plans to do once her shop closes for good. As she begins to speak, her voice quivers.
“If we can find someplace to move by the middle of August, then great, we’ll move,” she says, her eyes misting over. “If we can’t, I’ve gotta scramble to find a new home for all the cats that we have in our rescue. And I’ve gotta say goodbye to this chapter in my life.”
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