Closed JCPenney is an unlikely symbol of civic pride

The historic Penney's sign in San Fernando. It's a familiar story -- a small town rallies to protest a national retail outlet. This isn't that story.

Kai Ryssdal: The small town versus big bad national retail outlet is a familiar one by now. But what you're about to hear isn't that story. In San Fernando, Calif., this past week residents gathered at the local JCPenney's in protest of the store's departure.

David Weinberg has the story of how one of the nation's oldest retail chains became an unlikely point of civic pride.


David Weinberg: The residents of San Fernando, Calif., like to point out that their city is actually older than Los Angeles. Located in the San Fernando Valley 20 miles northwest of downtown L.A., San Fernando's historic district is lined with Quincenera dress shops and bridal stores. This relatively quiet street is at the center of a recent controversy over the late July closing of the JCPenney, which has been here for 80 years.

Al Hernandez: It's been a store that this community has supported for generations.

Al Hernandez is the city manager of San Fernando.

Hernandez: My parents used to love JCPenney's underwear. For some reason they were just better than anything else.

The announcement of the closing was met with protests from locals who gathered outside the store. Facing the the Verdugo Mountains that frame the city, they held up signs that said, "Don't kill our dreams" and "Ellen be kind to San Fernando" -- a plea to the company's spokesperson Ellen DeGeneres.

Hometown celebrity George Lopez even weighed in via YouTube.

George Lopez: Good people of JCPenney, I'm George Lopez. Obviously I'm a little bit saddened by the fact you guys have decided to close your doors and I'm asking you to reconsider.

After the announcement the city of San Fernando filed paperwork to make the iconic JCPenney building an historic landmark.

Sev Aszkenazy: We received a letter from the city that we immediately forwarded to JCPenney.

Sev Aszkenazy is the owner of the JCPenney building.

Aszkenazy: The letter was very detailed. We weren't allowed to alter the exterior or remove any of the, including signage.

Yes, the signage. This is when things got ugly. Sometime around midnight on Sunday July 29th, a contractor showed up to take down the historic JCPenney sign. He had covered the name of his business, which was printed on the side of his truck and used a towel to hide his license plate.

Hernandez: A resident of the community spotted this truck there with this guy up on this boom trying to take the sign down, so they raced out here, they called the police department.

City manager Al Hernandez says JCPenney hired the contractor. JCPenney did not respond to my requests for an interview, but they did issue a statement saying, "It's never an easy decision to close a store" and "Changes such as these are essential in helping us achieve our long term goals."

The effects of the store's closing are already apparent downtown.

Albert Malena: Let me show you.

Albert Malena works at a nonprofit three doors down from JCPenney. He took me to the store's parking lot, shimmering in the 114 degree heat. He says it used to be filled with cars nearly every day.

Malena: When I get here in the morning or later in the afternoon it's empty.

This is a problem for local businesses. David Jensen owns a furniture store a block away.

David Jensen: Since they've closed it's been less foot traffic, bottom line. It's hurting the city, it's hurting the business owners.

Jensen says that if JCPenney can't be lured back he expects city hall to bring in another large retailer. Without an anchor store to draw customers, business owners say it will be tough keeping their doors open.

In San Fernando, I'm David Weinberg For Marketplace.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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