Despite its reputation, the black cultural district of Leimert Park remains a geographic and psychological oddity. L.A. is a city known for such things. There are the incongruously named small towns like Hawaiian Gardens, the bizarrely drawn borders of places like Culver City, a tiny bit of which runs clear to Lincoln Boulevard. There are county territories that function as kind of demilitarized zones between cities ruled closely by fractious city councils, affluent beach cities with a mere 17,000 residents that yet claim their own police departments and school districts. And so on.
But Leimert Park is unique because it doesn't fit the usual oddity profile. It's not off the beaten path, but in the heart of L.A. proper, in the Crenshaw district. Its offerings of black and African-themed shops, arts, performance spaces and eateries are well-known to anyone who's lived here any length of time. And yet, precisely because it is a black neighborhood with some degree of all of the problems we've come to associate with black urban neighborhoods everywhere, it's also held at arm's length. People know its name much more than they know it as a place they regularly visit. Unless they live in Leimert or nearby (and sometimes not even then), they think twice about taking a stroll down Degnan or Vernon and checking things out. L.A. is not a pedestrian city, but it does have its designated spots and created main streets in areas like Larchmont and Hollywood and North Hollywood. Leimert certainly has that potential, but it also has a racial stigma that so far has kept it from developing into the official civic attraction that it really should be.
I thought about all this as I've followed the recent fight by Leimert Park folks and others to persuade Metro to build a train stop in Leimert Park Village, along the Crenshaw Line. Metro officials want to build it at the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza, the mall at Crenshaw and King Boulevards that's only a half mile or so from the village. Right around the corner. But the two places are many sensibilities apart. Despite its historic significance, the mall is only a mall that's generic in many respects; Leimert is not, to put it mildly. The mall offers the kind of predictability Metro likely favors for non-Crenshaw residents who might be reassured at the familiar sight of a Wal-Mart or Sears when they emerge from a train; Leimert Park is a vibe and a setting that is unique, unreplicable and racially specific.
The fight for the village is really a fight to present the best face of Crenshaw--its soul, if you will --that's been going on for years now. Is it a middle-class haven or an enclave of cultural pride and resistance to all things middle class? A flagship of mainstream black success or a center for black grassroots innovation? Is it possible for it to be both at once? The Crenshaw Line isn't scheduled to open until 2018, at the earliest. But the future of Leimert Park and its rightful place in Crenshaw, to say nothing of Los Angeles, has to be settled right now.
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 at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.