In the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Florence-Firestone, a tire shop has become a gathering space where residents celebrate holidays and discuss community happenings.
Locals pour into Carlito’s Tire & Auto Repair throughout the day. Some are there to get their tires fixed, but most are there for the company. The shop has a large table and chairs, a TV, a fan, a grill and a yard where kids can play.
“It’s a place where people can feel free to share their feelings and thoughts,” said Steve Quiñonez, the owner of the shop. “We’re out here to listen to people.”
The shop was once owned by Quiñonez’s father. He said he wants to carry on his father’s legacy and make sure people feel welcomed in the community. Quiñonez installed swings for the neighborhood kids and, on the weekends, lays out coffee and doughnuts for customers.
“It’s a place where I can come relax, discuss things, meet people, have fun, be involved in the community,” said resident Arthur Jones, the former Florence-Firestone Community Leaders president.
Florence-Firestone is a largely Latino community, comprising 86 percent of the population. African-Americans make up the second largest group, at 13 percent. The median household income is about $34,400 (in 2008 dollars), which is low for Los Angeles County but about average for South L.A.
Residents say they often feel forgotten because their neighborhood is in an unincorporated region of the county.
“One of the things that I’ve seen is that many of the adjacent areas have had their histories told, histories told of Watts, and South Gate, and the city of Los Angeles around us,” said community author Jonathan Pacheco Bell. “For some reason the historians ignored Florence-Firestone. It was as if history was happening around us.”
At Carlito’s Tire shop, many have said they feel included.
The tire shop serves as the headquarters for the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders neighborhood group. Since the community of Florence-Firestone is unincorporated, a group of community leaders have stepped up to make sure the voices of neighborhood residents are being heard.
“Our purpose is to inform the community of what services the county provides to improve their quality of life,” said William Allen, president of the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders.
The shop also puts on events for the neighborhood, such as a Halloween haunted house, a Christmas celebration and other charity events. Quiñonez has an entire trailer dedicated to holiday decorations on the side of his shop.
The inclusiveness at the shop is so infectious that some at the shop even refer to it as the “Florence Firestone Effect.”
“When people come in here they stop and stay. Some we have to chase away,” Jones, the former Florence-Firestone Community Leaders president, said in jest.
Jones said the shop isn’t just about fun, but also about offering help to those who need it. He said the shop is the ideal community place for getting information about local resources.
“You would be surprised at the type of information you could get at this shop. You can get info on what’s happening in and around this community. You can get political information… the people at the shop know who you can contact to get you the right information to get help,” said Jones.
The shop has even attracted a dog and several birds who all arrived on their own. Eventually, the shop workers had to get a leash for the dog and a cage for the birds.
“Everyone that comes in, no matter what, we all connect with them,” community leader Alex Melgoza said. “It’s wonderful to know that even if it’s someone we don’t know we welcome them and treat them as a friend and they keep coming.”
Melgoza said the neighborhood is much better thanks to the shop and the community leaders.
“I grew up in this community since I was little,” she said. “It’s so much different than what it was before. It’s a better place, better home, I feel safer for the kids.”