In all the years covering development in post-riot L.A -- up to and including today, because we're technically still post-riot -- I heard a lot of noble philosophy about why development needed to happen in economically stifled black neighborhoods. Justice, equal allocation of resources, investing in people, community empowerment, racial uplift, getting our due, to name a few. But the philosophy that stuck with me was the least high-minded yet has turned out to be most true: anything is better than a hole in the ground.
Sounds like a grassroots observation, but it came from a well-connected City Hall insider who had seen these philosophies come and go. Publicly she espoused the ideals of community and justice and equal resources and so forth. Personally, she believed in them. But in the realpolitik world, the bar for development in places like Crenshaw, South Central, and Inglewood was low to nonexistent because private developers were so reluctant to go there; by '92 that reluctance was pretty much conventional industry wisdom. So when I complained to this insider that the Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills mall that had been built in the 1980s was substandard, not like malls in Manhattan Beach and elsewhere, she countered that is was better than the alternative, which was nothing. Basically, she concluded, in Crenshaw and other black spaces that had been stagnant for so long, "anything is better than a hole in the ground."
Maybe she's right. But that kind of low-bar expectation has hurt us because it's weighed us down, literally lowering our sights . It's meant that when we erected a Krispy Kreme donut shop at the corner of Crenshaw and King Boulevard at the former site of a burned-out lot, we celebrated like we were opening the Taj Mahal. It's meant that a glorified strip mall like Chesterfield Square at Western and Slauson was hailed as great step forward in the community, while strip malls in other parts of town have long been considered eyesores. It's meant that liquor stores that got converted into Laundromats or anything not a liquor store are heralded as signs of change a-comin'. It's meant that Wal-Mart was able to move into an historic structure built for a higher-end department store because politicians assumed nobody better would come. It's meant that the gap between the possible and the actual in the black community has become so wide, we have all but stopped measuring it and continually settle for the actual, whatever that turns out to be. And if it turns out to be nothing, we don't complain but absorb that nothing into a whole history of what hasn't been done yet.
I'm not trying to belittle the things that have been done; I don't mind the Krispy Kreme (though donuts are exactly what disproportionately unhealthy black folk don't need) and I'd much rather see a Laundromat than a liquor store. And I know that putting the weight of real change on the narrow shoulders of retail -- Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Home Depot -- is unrealistic and unfair. Economic development is much more encompassing than that. It means not just stuff to buy, it means good-paying jobs, industry, decent schools. For black people, economic development is all of it. Retail is the lowest thing on a whole food chain of things.
Still, our development imagination could have been bigger. We could have built office towers or renovated aging medical buildings in Crenshaw instead of hailing a Krispy Kreme or pining for a Nordstrom Rack. Because at the end of the day, you can go to a Nordstrom Rack anywhere. It isn't infrastructure, like medical facilities and office buildings where people work. If this sounds like a pipe dream -- well, that's exactly the problem. With expectations so low for so long, even modest dreams of justice don't stand a chance.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.