The Leimert Park Book Festival officially kicked off the summer in Crenshaw two Saturdays ago with a day of books, panels, speeches, signings -- and rumblings that Leimert Park Village itself might not survive into the future to host the annual festival and events like it.
The awful possibility hung in the otherwise festive air like smog obscuring a clear view. The scene was pleasant enough -- a very warm day with the book fair spread out in the parking lot behind the Vision Theater, antique cars lining Degnan Boulevard in a street show, merchants along the boulevard selling African-themed wares on the shaded sidewalk outside their shops. But a few merchants were selling with moving in mind. It turns out that the property on one side of the street was sold a few weeks back, right around the time the village was celebrating Metro's decision to put in a rail stop in Leimert Park on the upcoming Crenshaw Line.
The decision came after an intense and prolonged fight by community groups and others who argued that as the black cultural hub of Los Angeles, Leimert Park Village more than deserved a spot on the expanding transit map. It finally got that spot. But what supporters couldn't have imagined -- or perhaps didn't want to imagine -- is that with its new profile, the village might be redeveloped into a place considerably different and less culturally organic than Leimert is now. The ironies of such a scenario are too multiple to mention.
The scenario is not a done deal. But merchants have been through enough to know that new ownership almost always means new rents that they almost certainly can't afford. Leimert is locally and even globally famous, but the fact is it isn't fantastically profitable; merchants pay modest rent that is often tough to make month to month. Preserving Leimert as a cultural hub with an artistic vibe would require a collaborative, nontraditional kind of redevelopment that doesn't appear to be forthcoming.
At this point the concerned merchants have not been able to meet with the new owners, or with tenth district Councilman Herb Wesson who represents the area. It's worth noting that council president Wesson engineered a re-drawing of council district lines that controversially took Leimert Park out of the eighth district and put it into his district, the tenth. The redistricting move left a very bad taste in the mouths of Crenshaw community members who saw it as a naked power grab and a bad omen for the future solvency of the black community itself, represented by the Degnan Boulevard merchants and artists.
They may be right; if I was a conspiracy theorist I'd say that Wesson had this in mind all along. I do hope I'm wrong But the mere possibility of Leimert's demise, or dimimishment, is frustrating and angering in ways that precede the latest moment of crisis. I've been watching Leimert for more than twenty years now, and while it's always seen itself as the necessary antithesis of a chain-store economy, it's never solidified its own economy enough to be able to claim any security in the space it's occupied for so long. A big part of the problem is that neither elected officials nor anyone else with power in town has really taken up Leimert as a cause; it has flourished, and languished, pretty much on its own. Merchants tell me they're trying to tap a black millionaire type to step in and buy the property at the eleventh hour, but that hasn't yielded anything so far. Magic Johnson has come and gone, and Johnson was never interested in Leimert but the very chain-store- oriented Santa Barbara Plaza across the way. And even that hasn't exactly turned out well. No development deals in the hood are a slam dunk, to put it mildly.
More will be revealed for sure. The truth is, Leimert is not what it used to be. Twenty years ago it was a hotspot of jazz and blues, a vibe that was sharply curtailed by the shuttering of Fifth Street Dick's and Babe and Rick's. The galleries that originally put Degnan in L.A.'s cultural consciousness are almost down to nil. But Leimert's very survival and growth (yes, there has been some -- the annual summer black arts festival, for one) in this increasingly cruel economy, especially for black people, has been nothing short of miraculous. A miracle right about now would be nice.