SoCal Connected on KCET

The Future of Leimert Park

Original Airdate June 11, 2014

Nic Cha Kim: As I was walking through the Leimert Park art walk I couldn’t help but feel this neighborhood's strong African American identity. Almost a century ago, developer Walter Leimert created Leimert Park as one of L.A.'s first master planned communities exclusively for white people. In fact, blacks were prohibited from living here. That changed in the late 40's when the restrictions were overturned. Then after the Watts riots, white flight took hold and Leimert Park emerged as L.A.'s hub of African American culture.

Now... there's a new drumbeat for change. The community pushed hard for a Metro stop and they got it.

Nic Cha Kim: This doesn’t look like much now, but in just a few years this will be a Metro stop that will be bringing thousands of new people to Leimert Park every day.

Leimert Park Village is charming. It has one of L.A.'s last remaining art deco theaters and attractive Spanish homes nearby -- affordable by L.A. standards. With convenient public transportation on the way, Leimert Park is ripe for gentrification. And other neighborhoods have learned that can be a blessing and a curse.

Nic Cha Kim: Verbs is a rapper and artist. He runs an open mic night in Leimert Park. What do you think is the worst thing that can happen?

Verbs:They just kick all the black people out of Leimert Park and then it’s no more Leimert Park. That’s what everybody is afraid of. It’s really so irrational to me. But that’s what all the older black peoples’ biggest fears.

Nic Cha Kim: Do you think that fear is generational?

Verbs: It definitely is generational. When I get old, I’m not going to be one of those. I’m like a person of this era.

Nic Cha Kim: Leimert Park is still three quarters African American.

Erin Aubrey Kaplan: Yes. Of course that's decrease in the last 10 years or so....

Nic Cha Kim: Erin Aubrey Kaplan writes about Leimert Park for KCET. She warns that not everyone benefits from rising property values.

Erin Aubrey Kaplan: The question really is these market forces that are changing Leimert Park. Black people tend to lose out when market forces are at work. They tend to be displaced.

Nic Cha Kim: As in most areas, low-income renters are most vulnerable.

Erin Aubrey Kaplan: There’s always been a sense that black spaces in L.A. and around L.A. are kind of fragile. You get upscale things which upscale is sort of a code word for "white" You get other people coming in an interested. Again we want that to happen, but there’s at the same time, there’s this weariness of…will this change the character of the village? This has been a fear for a long time. If we do get this positive change, are we going to be able to own the change. Are we going to be driven out?

Nic Cha Kim: If anyone can "own the change" it's Ben Caldwell. He runs and owns this center for media workshops and artists.

Ben Caldwell: In a real matter of fact sense, it's really about you owning your property. You have to own in order to speak because a lot of the dissension you hear are the renters and renters are afraid of change mainly because the change that happens in the neighborhood means that the prices are going to go up for their rent. And so that’s a bad change unless you own the property.

Nic Cha Kim: Among Leimert Park’s newcomers is Daniel Signani. This 3-bedroom Spanish house was priced in the mid $400's. He snapped it up.

Nic Cha Kim: Daniel, thank you for inviting me in your home…Daniel and his husband Matt were immediately welcomed by long-time residents here.

Daniel Signani: It's a vibrant community with people who are wanting to hold on to heritage and the history of it, which is totally understandable but I think open to the idea of fresh people moving in, fresh energy, and giving life to the village.

Daniel Signani: You are going to get people from other areas that are just learning of the neighborhood and realizing the values here that you can get so much more. Gentrification is almost impossible to stop.

Nic Cha Kim: If anything symbolizes the new Leimert Park, that would be this art gallery, Papillion. Michelle, you’ve got a really lovely gallery here. Tell me, why did you open up a gallery in Leimert Park?

Michelle Papillion: I mean Leimert is amazing. I think this is a really good neighborhood, the layout is beautiful, the people are really cool, and I love being here.

Nic Cha Kim: Will Leimert Park lose its core cultural identity as the hub of African American culture?

Michelle Papillion: Absolutely not.. I think a lot of people want to use word gentrification, but I think the more appropriate term is transformation. And I think this gallery -- and what we’re doing -- is evidence of the space really being transformed and revitalized.

Nic Cha Kim: As much I enjoyed the Leimert Park Art Walk, when I went back a few days later, I couldn't help but notice the boarded up buildings and empty stores. They say it's been hard to get the locals to shop here.

Erin Aubrey Kaplan: I totally believe that black consumers, they want to go and shop where they perceive everyone else is shopping, they want to be part of that mainstream. And black places by definition are not mainstream. They are, by definition, marginalized. So for validation we drive somewhere else and go walk in Beverly Hills and feel like we belong.

Nic Cha Kim: Jazz singer Barbara Morrison belongs in Leimert Park. Her performing arts center bears her name. Barbara's show has drawn a diverse crowd this afternoon. She says people have the wrong impression of Leimert Park until they come here.

Barbara Morrison: I think that most people feel that anything in this Crenshaw area, south of the 10 freeway is like Watts, like you should be afraid to come here. But as you can see how peaceful and wonderful it is, and the beautiful homes in the area. It’s kind of like a hidden treasure.

Verbs: I think I embrace diversification. This could still be a black cultural hub but ain't nothing wrong if there's a little sprinkles of all sorts of flavors in the mix, you know what I mean.

Daniel Signani: I get more excited to come home every day and pulling into my driveway and knowing that we’re in this neighborhood. It really is a great feeling.

Ben Caldwell: If we sell it correctly, I think just as our music real does well, I think this neighborhood will do just as well.

Barbara Morrison: I think the most successful people are the ones that give it one more try. One more try. That’s what I’d like to see. I’d like to see everyone around this street and around this area, give it one more boost. I think we can make it.

Nic Cha Kim: The new Metro stop won't open until 2019. So it'll be a while before we know whether LP will continue to look this way or if the community will own the change so many are hoping for. I’m Nic Cha Kim for “SoCal Connected.”

What is the future of Leimert Park, the hub of African-American arts and culture?

Nic Cha Kim takes a look at the 1.2 square-mile stretch of Leimert Park, also known as "the black Greenwich Village."

Kim travels to various parts of the village for "SoCal Connected" to ask business owners, residents, and stakeholders about the future of Leimert Park and whether gentrification will impact the neighborhood's culture.

With the scheduled 2019 opening of a Metro stop in the area, how will business owners and residents react to the neighborhood's transformation?

Some say the city's historic art presence is something that can help tackle new changes and preserve the city's roots. Upscale art galleries like Papillion have captivated the attention of Leimert Park residents. But will this change the face of the village or work to raise the art scene and attract new visitors?

Leimert Park longtimer Ben Caldwell told KCET Departures that more efforts like Papillion are on the way.

Will Leimert Park lose its core cultural identity as the hub of African-American arts and culture? Join the discussion in this episode of "SoCal Connected."

Music for the history section of this story by Alberta Hunter/Fats Waller/Creative Commons License cc-by-sa-3.0

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Verbs, artist/rapper
  • Erin Aubry Kaplan, journalist,
  • Ben Caldwell, business owner
  • Michelle Papillion, gallery owner, Papillion
  • Barbara Morrison, jazz singer


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