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A Los Angeles Primer: Leimert Park

"So many people wanna cruise on Crenshaw on Sunday," raps Skee-Lo on his 1995 hit "I Wish". "Well then, I'mma have to get in my car and go." He even gives directions: "You know I take the 110 until the 105" — from the relatively venerable Harbor Freeway to the then-brand-new Century Freeway — "get off at Crenshaw, tell my homies, 'Look alive.'" You can still follow Skee-Lo's route, but don't expect to emerge into the very same neighborhood you saw in the music video for "I Wish". Head north on Crenshaw for about six more miles, though, and there you'll arrive: Leimert Park, just over one square mile of late-1920s planned community which would become, as LA Weekly music critic Jeff Weiss puts it in a profile of Skee-Lo (who still resides nearby), "the Left Bank of early-90s underground hip-hop." I'd recommend against doing much cruising, though; since Skee-Lo's summer days on the charts, sternly official signs have appeared: "NO CRUISING," they read. Then, in case of ambiguity: "2 TIMES PAST THE SAME POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS IS CRUISING." Last I went down to Leimert Park on a Sunday, I couldn't resist passing the same points repeatedly, daring each time not to let six hours elapse. My defiance raised little in the way of police attention.

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Then again, I did it on a bicycle, not in the 1964 Impala of Skee-Lo's underdog longings. But even in a car, I'd find the neighborhood too intriguing to move simply through rather than around, and besides, cycling has precedent there. I seem to recall that Jody, Tyrese Gibson's feckless 20-year-old father at the center of the Leimert Park-set "Baby Boy", relied on a bike to get around. Its director, John Singleton, has called Leimert Park "the black Greenwich Village." He also made "Boyz N the Hood", a better-known, more heightened cinematic tale of the perils of life in south Los Angeles, but this particular area feels more or less free of the air of menace movies and television have, imitating all the wrong aspects of work like Singleton's, liberally applied to so much of Los Angeles below Interstate 10. (When Tom Cruise's visiting assassin has to take out a jazz club owner with a shadowy past in "Collateral", he does go straight to Leimert Park. That film, however, found its 21st-century noir sensibility by looking back, past the thug years, to what fueled the city's first wave of noir: the Leimert Park-connected Black Dahlia murder, for instance.) But given both the Left Bank and Greenwich Village comparisons, it makes sense that people almost instinctively use the word "vibrant" to describe the place. I get the sense that when Angelenos who live far from Leimert Park come to it, they come in search of that elusive vibrancy, manifest as it may in music, murals, literature, or shops filled with African collectibles.

I myself first came in search of Jamaican food, after hearing of one such well-regarded eatery on the colorful Degnan Boulevard. Caribbean influences have made themselves felt in Leimert Park proper, but even more so in the miles surrounding it. Belizean restaurants have popped up in a particularly noticeable way, sometimes even displacing some of the soul food spots you might expect to find there. My own last Belizean meal in the neighborhood — which, with its rice, beans, and fried catfish, didn't feel wholly out of its proper context — took place in a building whose former occupying business advertised itself as "Home of the Bean Pie". In fact, the building still advertises itself as Home of the Bean Pie; the current Belizean proprietors never took the old sign down, and have left hanging on the walls the old gallery of framed black-and-white photographs of various Civil Rights Movement leaders. An unusual cultural juxtaposition observed over a plate of richly delicious food, in a humble, almost makeshift setting: in other words, just the sort of image I wheel out whenever someone asks me, incredulously, what Los Angeles could possibly have to offer.

This, Leimert Park's developers, safe to say, would not have envisioned. Like many districts miles from downtown Los Angeles, this one began as a seemingly far-fetched real-estate project. Created in 1927 by developer Walter H. Leimert, the neighborhood went up according to plans laid out by Olmsted Brothers, the company founded by the sons of prominent landscape architect and designer of urban parks Frederick Law Olmsted. (See also Yosuke Kitazawa's post "Walter H. Leimert and the Selling of a Perfect Planned Community".) Looking at his work on the Emerald Necklace in Boston, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, and Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, modern urbanists have raised the elder Olmsted to visionary status. Despite its name, Leimert Park contains no public green spaces of a comparable size, though three of its major boulevards — Crenshaw, Degnan, and Leimert — do converge on Leimert Plaza Park, whose fountain you'll recognize as the one Skee-Lo circled while bemoaning his hatchback, with it flat spare tire and its eight-track.

This park itself, though modest, regularly hosts events of, shall we say, outsized vibrancy. It drew me in that Sunday morning, when most of the shops along Degnan had yet to open up, by emanating the particularly effective siren song (effective on me, anyway) of old-school funk and soul. The sounds of Chaka Khan, Cheryl Lynn, and Chic (perhaps a result of working through a record library alphabetically?) led me to an outdoor market complete with vendors of bean pies — which, alas, the Belizeans don't tend to keep on offer — and freshly grilled salmon. The latter smelled so promising that I immediately purchased a piece of it, and, holding its foil-wrapped plate up on one hand, rode it all the way to West Hollywood so my girlfriend, working up there at the time, could enjoy it too. While Leimert's first buyers no doubt came to his development for this degree of pleasantness, facilitated in part by his advertisements' promised "Solid Concrete Streets" and "Shade Trees," they enjoyed them, per his advertisements' promised "Excellent Protective Restrictions," among an entirely different demographic. Most of what gets my attention in modern Leimert Park couldn't have existed in the Leimert Park of the 1930s: the little boy, for example, who cried "Look at that white guy!" as I rode past.

But Los Angeles' neighborhoods, like enduring works of literature, take on lives of their own, shaped to a much greater extent by their living interpreters than by the intentions of their long-passed authors. Whoever lives in Leimert Park today and whatever they do there, it still stands as a rebuke to the common notion of Los Angeles as the thoroughly unplanned, borderline nonsensical result of chaotic, conflicting building on a vast scale. Walter H. Leimert may have geared the development that bears his name to fulfilling the suburban dream of detached homes on quiet streets, but most of those homes have stayed small and retained their pleasingly understated style, and those streets lead toward a distinctive commercial village. Los Angeles now finds itself playing a game of connect-the-dots, looking for ways to best unite its multiplicity of well-developed, mixed-use, walkably-sized — dare I use that urbanist buzzword, "livable"? — districts. Leimert Park's original advertisements touted the existence of such a connection on the Los Angeles Railroad's "yellow car" line, and recently a debate has erupted over re-establishing it on the forthcoming Crenshaw Line. The relevant questions, none easy to answer, include whether the budget exists to build a dedicated station, whether the neighborhood needs a station at all, and whether a rail collection might alter the place's character unacceptably. Hanging out in Leimert Park, I can understand and even share the concerns about not wanting the neighborhood flavor diluted, but those thoughts do give me pause: don't we — we who always want more connection, more density, more efficiency — make fun of, say, the historically subway-resistant Beverly Hills for acting on essentially the same fear?

Read more extensive coverage of Leimert Park from KCET Departures here.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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