Pop quiz: what is Leimert Park?
Geographically savvy Angelenos know it as part of the southwesterly edge of South Central, an unexpectedly picturesque neighborhood bridging the inner city and the westside and midtown. Those not quite familiar with the geography (and that's a lot of us) might still know Leimert Park as the heart and psyche of L.A.'s black community, not least because it hosts just about every black-themed event there is, from Kwanzaa to monthly art walks to annual jazz festivals. There is also the regular scene on Degnan Boulevard, the tiny drag running between 43rd Street and 43rd Place that for the last generation has been nicely overpopulated with African and black-themed bookstores, craft stores, restaurants, gift shops, and, at various times in its history, dance studio, museum, serious jazz clubs, and galleries.
That's the modern life of Leimert, but a new book by Cynthia Exum and Maty Guiza-Leimert ponders its past and tries to reconcile the lily-white origins of this place just east of Crenshaw Boulevard with its current life as the proud but somewhat fading locus of black L.A. (Exum founded the excellent Leimert Park Village Book Fair). "Images of America: Leimert Park" (Arcadia Publishing) tells its story chiefly through pictures, and what a treasure trove it is, a wealth of vintage photos of Leimert Park as it was being constructed in the late '20s and sold to the city -- and the rest of America -- as the idyllic, self-contained village-within-the-big-city that L.A. would become famous for.
Many of the photos are provided by the Walter H. Leimert company, the development firm that conceived and built Leimert and other bedroom-community neighborhoods like it in Southern California and elsewhere. Consequently, some of the photos in the book have that SoCal booster verve; they are frank advertisements that assure prospective homebuyers, "Leimert Park For Everything," painting it as a jewel of a neighborhood only six miles from any point in the city worth driving to, including Hollywood and downtown.
That's the real-estate story unique to us. The ethnic and cultural shift is entirely familiar to big cities around the country with neighborhoods that started out racially exclusive and turned a different color later in the 20th century as whites exited the inner city at the same time that blacks, freed from housing-covenant restrictions, poured in. "Leimert Park" recognizes this transition as happening dramatically after 1965, the year of the Watts Riots, but it argues that rather than decline, Leimert simply reinvented itself as a mecca of black pride and artistic vision. The original idealism and dream of the accessible good life that fueled the first incarnation of Leimert, it suggests, is still intact. The post-'65 pictures are as fascinating and telling as the ones from thirty years earlier, chronicling the rise of the artistic and political scene that was seeded by the Davis brothers, Alonzo and Dale, and that grew steadily from there.
It's a persuasive argument, though inconclusive. Leimert Park is still distinct and a black focal point, but it's been economically battered the last twenty years -- since the last riot -- and in some ways reflects the ongoing struggle of black folks to maintain presence and influence in a city that now defines diversity very differently than it did in the '60s, or even in the '20s when Leimert Park was going up. In the book, the last line of an otherwise upbeat introduction and historical overview by Exum says it all: "The area today is struggling to maintain its identity," she writes. "Rising rents and redevelopment plans slated for the area have forced many businesses to close." And that's where she leaves it. It will be interesting to see how the next chapter of Leimert Park is written.
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.