Railroaded? Pessimism Warranted about Construction of Metro's Crenshaw Line

Ground broke this week on the Crenshaw-to-LAX (adjacent) rail line. Looks like good timing for some transportation justice, this being the week of the Martin Luther King holiday. Since the Blue Line opened some 20 years ago, rail construction in L.A. has been moving steadily from the Westside and Valley and Pasadena back to the hood, a southward march that has now reached the last stronghold of black neighborhoods in the region, Crenshaw and Inglewood.

County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and others are heralding the groundbreaking as a proud and significant, if overdue moment, a turning point in an area that's had an anemic economy for, well, forever. Trains, we're told, will change that. Trains will theoretically bring the world to Crenshaw, which may have name recognition but not the economic health to match.

Not that nothing's happened economically. The Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza mall is spruced up and now boasts on its grounds a Rave Cinema and Post & Beam, a genuine foodie restaurant -- top-line chef, chic interior, creative menu -- that puts Crenshaw on the culinary map in a different way than do Harold & Belle's and other traditional Southern hangs. Those places are wonderful (and I speak as a West coast Creole who grew up visiting family that lived along the Jefferson Boulevard corridor and who actually founded H & B) but they are Crenshaw's traditional past; Post & Beam is its future.

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Along those lines, the old Maverick's Flat on Crenshaw that had been dark for years has reopened for a new generation of clubgoers. The boulevard is also showing signs of hipster life: an eye-catching boutique, a couple of yoga studios, a pared-down Dulan's soul food that's more casual than its sit-down predecessor and seems part of a more distinct, but more minimalist food culture.

A rail line should therefore be a natural complement to all this, but like so many projects in the hood, it arrives with considerable controversy. Concern has been building for years about the negative impact the massive rail construction will likely have on the boulevard's fragile economy, which after all is a relative handful of small businesses that don't attract political support or get much pedestrian traffic anyway.

The Crenshaw Subway Coalition, a grassroots organization that advocates for rail built in accordance with the community's wishes, is gearing up for a legal fight; it wants to force Metro to put stops underground along the 11-block stretch between Leimert Park and 57th Street, arguing that business owners simply cannot survive the loss of customers the disruption will bring. I drive that stretch of Crenshaw a lot, and I have to agree.

I patronize Dulan's, Nobody Jones boutique, Dog Lovers pet grooming. I'm very glad -- ecstatic, actually -- that those places are there and hate the idea of being inconvenienced to the point that I would be forced to take my pets to the Westside or South Bay, where doggie salons are common. Going to Crenshaw for a dog clip or yoga class is an act of triumph, a vote for real change that in other places have long been status quo. On the Westside I'm treated well enough, but am just another customer. In Crenshaw, my patronage is nothing less than activism, role modeling for those who assume that the middle class in Crenshaw look to the Westside, not home, for choice and service.

A big selling point of the rail line by pols and others is the promise that it will bring much-needed jobs to the community. Walmart, which occupies a space in the mall formerly occupied by a real department store, said the same thing.

I know construction jobs are not service-sector jobs, but I'm skeptical. Getting contractors to hire locally, and to hire African Americans who populate the area and who desperately need decent jobs, has proven politically and even legally very difficult -- just ask the Black Workers Center, which has been trying in the last year to secure promises to just that effect. It has been tough going, and that's discouraging considering that the Crenshaw rail project, above ground or not, is the biggest construction project the area has seen in a very long time, and perhaps the last, best hope for blacks in L.A. to try and stabilize an employment situation that has been shaky for as long as I've been working (and not working.)

But the point is that the jobs, if they come, should not come at the expense of decimating one of the few defined local economies black folks have left. The last thing that Dog Lovers, et al, need now, in this endless era of recession is to be railroaded.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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