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La Brea Rising in Inglewood

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La Brea is an avenue whose time hasn't quite come, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that it's getting there. The stars are all aligned. Now the earthlings who run city councils and chambers of commerce and such have to follow suit.

I'm not talking about the La Brea that we already know, the one that starts at about Olympic and runs north into Hollywood. That La Brea has long had its moment in the sun, especially the historically trendy stretch between Wilshire and Beverly that's chock full of boutiques and cafes and other attractions that make it one of the better park-and-walk spots in L.A. That's been especially true in the last several years as those spots have upgraded and catered more and more to the one percent -- okay, maybe to the twelve percent. Let's just say that the only truly affordable place on that part of the boulevard is Buffalo Exchange, the recycled clothing store where you can buy stuff and donate money to your charity of choice at the same time. Of course, even that has a certain appeal to the twelve percent; in the age of permanent economic anxiety and climate change, recycled goods and sustainability in general have become their own genre of chic.

But I'm talking here about the other end of La Brea, the south part that starts at the dramatic rise at Stocker Street in Baldwin Hills and descends into Inglewood. In the few blocks that curve between 64th Street and Centinela, before it settles back down into main-street mundanity, La Brea has the sudden feel of a village. It isn't Larchmont, but it is a kind of cozy collection of restaurants, boutiques and a few other places that feel on the verge. My favorite is NewStyleWeb, a reliably hip shoe and clothing place near Centinela. The one to watch is Penuel, a bright, airy bicycle shop at Fairview that opened two years ago and is in the process of adding a coffee bar. Owner George Turner Jr. says the idea is to have a place where serious cyclists can have a place to hang out, not just be a pit stop or turnaround. He'd like it if the rest of us hung out there, too.

La Brea Avenue in Inglewood | Photo: George Turner Jr.

Turner is 42 and an Inglewood native who grew up in this south La Brea neighborhood. Before opening his shop we worked at the old City of Bicycles, just a block or so south of him; it shuttered a few years back. Like me, Turner has a vision for his old hood, a dream that this modest but unique stretch will put Inglewood on the map in a way that the Forum, etc., can't. The Forum and the mammoth development happening at Hollywood Park a few miles away are spectacular, but modular. They could go anywhere -- Carson, downtown. They just happen to be here. But La Brea is grassroots, something that can't be found elsewhere. It's Inglewood's take on La Brea after (or before, depending which direction you're travelling) mid-city and Hollywood offer their interpretations. Turner himself is looking to be a kind of missing link between the small black business model of service -- hair salon, barber shop -- and the leisure and health-minded middle class that populates this part of town. He's hopeful. He's seeing more and more signs of gentrification, that is, more nonblack people walking the streets, which in terms of business is a very good sign. (In terms of other things it's murkier, but that's another column, at least.)

Turner is a cycle enthusiast who caught the bug early, when he was a kid. Like lots of kids of his generation -- and mine -- he rode in the streets constantly. "I grew up riding bike all day, it kept me out of trouble," he says. "You can hop on a bike and escape everything. It just stuck with me." Sometimes, unbeknownst to his parents, he'd ride twenty miles out to Palos Verdes and back.

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But times have changed. Despite efforts by local organizations and schools, kids now spend most of their spare time with electronic devices, not on bikes. Parents worried about crime are more wary about sending kids out of doors, especially for long periods of time. Turner says that without kids driving bike sales, he has to depend on the serious cyclists and health-conscious adults looking for a low-impact workout. But that's really not compensation. Even throwing in the trend away from cars towards public transit and bikes, the vacuum left by kids is huge.

Still, Turner is optimistic. Penuel is directly across the street from Fiesta Martin, a Mexican restaurant/sports bar that on a recent late Saturday afternoon was packed, with more customers waiting for tables. Next door to it is Bayou Grille, a casual Creole seafood place that's been around for years. Just among these three places I saw more foot traffic than I've seen for anything on my end of town. If south La Brea takes off, maybe it's just a matter of time before I get a version of it along Crenshaw, or Imperial: at that corner is a big old '50s style open-air mall that's in sore need of reinvention. With Inglewood coming into its own at both ends of the city, the Forum and company -- even the company of a football stadium -- would just be so much icing on the cake.

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