That New Black Magic

Magic Theatres in the Crenshaw districtIt's hard to know how to feel about the impending renaissance of the Magic Theaters in the Crenshaw district. Once a glowing emblem of redevelopment promise in post-riot black L.A. in the mid-90s, the theater complex made basketball legend Magic Johnson a new kind of local hero--the millionaire black athlete who was ready to put those millions towards helping distressed black neighborhoods that had long grumbled about the absence of black celebrities/superstars from the causes of workaday black people. Magic Johnson Enterprises seemed poised to help those neighborhoods achieve what a historian friend of mine calls "retail justice." Strange as it seems, building cineplexes and consumer amenities such as Starbucks did emerge as a kind of black freedom movement of the late twentieth century, at least in mall-obsessed L.A., with high-profile figures like Magic leading the way.

Some people grumbled that this was all show, that Magic was a front man for Sony and
Starbucks and other big corporations that were strictly interested in sucking whatever
profit there was in the 'hood, not bettering it in any real sense. But even doubters couldn't argue with having a new, first-run movie theater around the corner, or with Crenshaw finally getting what more affluent communities had long taken for granted. Whatever your politics or views of Magic, the significance of even this modest bit of "retail justice" was real. And it looked to be just the beginning.

A lot's happened since 1995--or to put it more accurately, too little. After opening the
theaters, Johnson's company lost its dramatic bid to redevelop Santa Barbara Plaza, the
enormous but decrepit open-air shopping mall adjacent to the Crenshaw mall where the
theaters are located (the plaza is still decrepit, with no coherent redevelopment plan in
sight). The 90s skidded into to a recession. The political interest generated by the riots in
retooling black neighborhoods faded. L.A. In 2004, Magic and his partner Ken Lombard
quietly sold their share of the movie business to Loews, but allowed it to keep the name
Magic Theaters. The theaters kept going, but the Magic was definitely gone.

Now the theaters are primed for a second act. Lombard, now a co-owner of the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza, is overseeing a major renovation of the theaters, part of a larger plan to overhaul and upgrade the mall itself. The old theaters that were hailed as the first new theaters to come to Crenshaw in a very long time are in the process of being demolished to make way for a newer, state-of-the-art cineplex run by Rave, the upscale movie-theater chain that took over the Bridge Cinema de Lux in nearby Culver City. The new theaters are scheduled to open in May.

You don't need Magic to have a successful movie theater in Crenshaw; I'm sure the
neighborhood will be happy to have Rave in its midst rather than several miles away. But
without the bigger mission that Magic brought to his enterprise--a mission he couldn't
or didn't sustain--I wonder if the next new Crenshaw movie house will go over big.
I wonder if Crenshaw will be faced with the problem that's plagued its retail justice
movement for years: if you can get the same thing in Culver City or South Bay, why stick
around the neighborhood? Ultimately, the neighborhood has to be more than the sum of a new building or two. In these post-racial times, we need some real magic for that.

Photo by Shavar Ross on Flickr. This image was used under a Creative Commons License.

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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