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On Location: Inglewood

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Downtown Inglewood, 1975 | Inglewood Public Library, via Calisphere

Inglewood's historic legacy is one of the richest and most complicated legacies of any city in Southern California. Dating back over a century, the city has seen many different eras, demographic changes, and no shortage of roller coaster high and lows. This week L.A. Letters examines the legacy of Inglewood, celebrating the past, present and future of the self-proclaimed City of Champions.

The great Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her KCET column last week about Inglewood's current state-appointed school superintendent and that he, like many others who do not know any better or have never ventured south of Interstate 10, "likely sees Compton, Inglewood, Watts, South Central, etc. as all of a piece." This perception of lumping in Inglewood and these other neighborhoods all together is mistaken though as Teka-Lark Fleming of the Morningside Park Chronicle writes, noting that Inglewood is home to "one of the largest groups of Black homeowners in L.A. County." This side of Inglewood was celebrated in the 1999 film, "The Wood." Inglewood not only has a large collection of well-kept homes, it has a well-built downtown, a storied sporting history, and a thriving art community.

Before going further into the story of Inglewood districts like Morningside Park and the recent past and bright future of Inglewood, a quick discussion of the city's history is necessary to capture the big picture. Inglewood was incorporated in 1908 and the city's roots trace back to both the Rancho Sausal Redondo, a land grant granted by Governor Alvarado to Antonio Avila in 1837, and Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela, granted to Ygnacio Machado by Governor Micheltorena in 1844. This second rancho mentioned is where the Centinela Adobe was built during this time. The Centinela Adobe still stands and is immediately west of the 405 freeway where it can be seen just north of the airport and adjacent to Westchester. The sign next to the freeway proclaims the Centinela Adobe, "the birthplace of Inglewood." It is open to the public on Sunday afternoons from 2 to 4 p.m. and also by appointment.

According to "The WPA Guide to the City of Angels: Los Angeles in the 1930s," the Centinela Adobe, "was built between 1833 and 1840 by Ygnacio Machado by the old Salt Road, whose course approximated that of today's Inglewood-Redondo Boulevard (now Florence Boulevard); it led from the pueblo of Los Angeles to a lick, source of the salt used by early Angelenos." Following a succession of ownerships, the adobe eventually was bought by Daniel Freeman in the mid-1880s. Freeman is called "the father of Inglewood," and he began slowly subdividing the rancho lands in the late 19th Century. The adobe's name is also why the Inglewood area was known as the Centinela Valley during this time.

After the city was incorporated in 1908, it was for a time one of the fastest growing cities in America up into the 1920s. Many homes were built in the city's first few decades. The city's rapid growth and early history is also heavily tied in with both the oil and the aviation industries. Large oil reserves in the northern part of Inglewood existed next to present day Baldwin Hills between La Cienega and La Brea. As any driver on these roads can attest to, the oil wells remain there to this day.

Inglewood's close proximity to the Los Angeles Airport has also been a factor right from the beginning. Many of the city's early residents worked for the nearby aviation companies like Douglas Aircraft, Hughes, Northrop, Rockwell, and a number of others located in the surrounding areas like El Segundo, Hawthorne, and Westchester. My own grandfather worked for Douglas during the Second World War and lived in Inglewood for 34 years before he died in 1985.

My grandparents bought a house in Inglewood in 1951 on Van Ness and my grandmother remained in the house until she passed in 2003. I spent many Christmases in Inglewood. My dad spent most of his childhood in Inglewood and attended Washington High School. Inglewood was known for its suburban charm and the neighborhoods were considered nicer than most parts of nearby Los Angeles. There are many areas in Inglewood with larger than average homes, especially along Hillcrest Drive and St. John Place. One of the best known districts in Inglewood, celebrated for its beautiful homes, is Morningside Park.

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Inglewood City Hall | Photo: fauxtos/Flickr/Creative Commons

Morningside Park

Terence McClain's parents moved from Los Angeles to Inglewood in 1965 when he was 3 years old. McClain recently told me, "The first thing I remember about the city is that as my parents drove west down Century Boulevard approaching Van Ness, at night, they pointed out how Inglewood's street lights were a distinctive pretty golden amber color which set it apart from the plain white color of Los Angeles city street lights." McClain has remained in Inglewood since 1965, and now owns a home in Morningside Park.

Buying a home in this area for him was a dream come true. "I can remember as a teen riding my bike in the Morningside Park neighborhood of Inglewood, and admiring the calm streets and Spanish style stucco homes," McClain says. "I would say to myself, 'I'm going to buy a house over here when I'm older.' Well that's just what I did too." Among his many childhood memories he can recall how busy the Hollywood Park horse racing events would make the city streets. "During the horse race season when the track was letting out ... it was so busy with cars and traffic that you had to know how to take detours on side streets to get home or be stuck in the traffic." In recent years, McClain has played a big part in the city's art community; more on this later.

Deborah Murphy, an urban planner and the founder of Los Angeles Walks, also grew up in Inglewood. Her parents bought a home in Morningside Park in 1962 and they remain there to this day. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when white flight rapidly changed the demographics of Inglewood, Murphy's parents chose to remain in the area because they loved their home so much and got along well with their neighbors.

Murphy shared fond memories of her Inglewood childhood with me. She spent her childhood walking around Inglewood, and even credits the city's smart urban design as a major influence on her future career choice. She tells me that when her parents would take her to places like the San Fernando Valley or Orange County on weekend visits during her youth, she always felt about these places like what Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, that "there was no there there." These places lacked the urban vitality of Inglewood. She credits her Inglewood childhood with her love of walking and celebrating a city from a pedestrian level. When she read urban theorists like Jane Jacobs years later in graduate school at UCLA, where she studied Architecture and Urban Planning, she realized how much her childhood walking around Inglewood had influenced her.

Murphy recalls shopping in Downtown Inglewood and walking all over the city on streets like Market, Manchester, and Crenshaw. "I never felt any sense of danger, and drivers were much more courteous then than they are now. If you jaywalked they stopped." She walked down Crenshaw from 84th Street to 108th when she attended Monroe Junior High School in the late 1960s.

Academy Theater, Inglewood | Photo: Don Barrett/Flickr/Creative Commons
Academy Theater, Inglewood | Photo: Don Barrett/Flickr/Creative Commons

Murphy would walk to movie theaters like the 5th Avenue and the Academy Movie Palace on Crenshaw and Manchester. The Academy is known for its decadent Art Moderne style. It was built by the great architect S. Charles Lee in 1939, and is now a church. Murphy worked at a dry cleaners on Manchester during her teen years. "It was owned by an Italian immigrant tailor, next to the 5th Avenue movie theater," she says.
Though she does recall some interracial tension during this era, it never directly affected her because she had learned how to get along well with all people -- her parents were very friendly and had always been more enlightened in regards to race relations than many whites from that era. Her high school years were split between both Inglewood and Morningside High Schools.

Other memories Murphy recalls are playing in the massive Inglewood Park Cemetery, one block west of her parents' house. "We used to catch pollywogs there," she says. Many luminaries are buried there, including former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and architect Paul Williams. "That was our park and later on I learned how to drive in the Inglewood Cemetery," she says. My great grandmother, paternal grandparents and aunt are also buried there.

The Forum

The Forum across the street from the Cemetery was built on a former golf course in 1967-68 by the Canadian businessman Jack Kent Cooke, and the Lakers and Kings both played there for 31 seasons before the Staples Center was built in 1999. Deborah Murphy recalls seeing Wilt Chamberlain drive around Inglewood in his red Maserati. "The first show I saw at the Forum was the Supremes and the opening acts were Little Stevie Wonder and Jerry Lee Lewis," Murphy recalls. Terence McClain tells me he remembers, "Going to see the Harlem Globetrotters and Ringling Bros Circus at the Forum." The five championships the Lakers won during the 1980s at the Forum are a big reason why Inglewood called itself the City of Champions. The basketball games there in the 1984 Olympics also factored into this as well.

Revenue from the Forum was an important part of the Inglewood economy for many years. When Staples Center opened in 1999 and the Lakers and Kings left the Forum, Inglewood took a large financial hit. In 2012, Madison Square Garden bought the Forum and did a $76 million dollar renovation of the historic space. Under their direction many concerts and new events have been once again held at the Forum. Shortly after the Forum was renovated, the adjacent Hollywood Park race track was closed in 2013 after 75 years of horse races. The land is set to become a giant mixed-use project with both residential and retail.

Changes in Inglewood

As noted in the beginning of this essay, Teka-Lark Fleming is dedicated to debunking false perceptions of Inglewood through her newspaper the Morningside Park Chronicle (MPC) and with her podcast, "the Blk Grrrl Show." She recently told me, "My mission with my newspaper and now with the MPC presents the Blk Grrrl Show is to preserve the heritage of my middle class Black community." Her favorite building in the city is the recently closed Morningside Park Library. Fleming recently wrote an article for Ebony Magazine lamenting the library's closing and recent changes in her neighborhood. Fleming has also written about how her grandparents, who lived in southern Inglewood were forced to move years ago because of the construction on the 105 Freeway. My grandfather would joke that he was going to be dead before they finished it and this is exactly what happened. When it was finally completed in 1994, he had been gone for 9 years.

There have been many different attempts at revitalizing Downtown Inglewood over the years. After a lifelong interest in music, art, entertainment, and event promotion, Terence McClain took over the lease on an old Mexican restaurant in Downtown Inglewood back in 1998 that had been sitting unused for many years, and he renamed the space, Cafe Future and Gallery. For five years McClain hosted hundreds of poetry readings, nights of live music, and art exhibits. It was also the first cyber café in the area, with multiple computers that gave patrons access the then new world of the web. Reflecting back he says, "I was out to make a difference with the people in my own community and saw the need for a creative outlet or venue for local creative talent and access to something new called the internet." He's also proud to have given many local artists their first art show or place to read their work or jam musically on stage. He tells me, "I really enjoyed creating a venue and space that was open for all sorts of art and creative talents to be showcased because it inspires others with talents to step up on the stage and go for it as well."

Unfortunately when a new Starbucks came to the neighborhood it made it harder financially to stay open, and he eventually closed Café Future after five epic years. Reflecting on his time there, McClain would like to see: "A variety of prosperous small businesses and corporate retailers, co-exist together in Downtown Market Street." Moreover he wishes Downtown Inglewood could have "A major venue that makes all types of art, entertainment and community activities accessible to all ages."

'Moments' mural at the Forum by Michael Massenburg | http://www.michaelmassenburg.com
'Moments' mural at the Forum by Michael Massenburg | http://www.michaelmassenburg.com

A recent bright spot in Inglewood has been the rise of several art studios along Hyde Park, La Brea, and West Boulevard over the last decade. Over the last eight years there has been an annual weekend event, the Inglewood Open Studios Tour. Inglewood Cultural Arts (ICA) is a central organization in this community. There are too many artists to mention, but one of the most prominent is Michael Massenburg. Lynell George wrote a portrait of Massenburg last year for Artbound. She wrote, "If you've spent some time exploring the city outside of your car in certain corners of Los Angeles County, you might have glimpsed some of Massenburg's work -- commissions or public art projects he's had a hand in -- most likely without even realizing it."

Massenburg has been one of the most prolific artists in Southern California over the last generation. He has done a number of murals and public art installations in places like Leimert Park, along the Expo Line, the Mark Twain Library on Figueroa, the African American Firefighter Museum on Central Avenue, and soon he will be creating a 30 by 30 foot mural in the Downtown Inglewood Library. Massenburg has lived in Inglewood for over 20 years and his studio is on La Brea close to Manchester.

In Lynell George's Artbound article Massenburg professes his love for Inglewood and also comments, similar to Erin Aubry Kaplan and Teka Lark-Fleming, on how the city has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by many outsiders over the years. In George's essay, Massenburg tells her, "Inglewood is actually part of the South Bay -- but I guess it got kicked out," he jokes. He continues to say that many now call Inglewood "South Central." He tells George, "I've lived in both places and they are completely different in terms of dynamic, but it's funny how it's all lumped together because of culture and race. It's all about perception." Massenburg celebrates Inglewood in his work and city leaders are excited about his large forthcoming mural in the library set to be unveiled in early 2015.

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The Future of Inglewood

Twenty four year-old Dante Mitchell spent most of his childhood in Inglewood. Mitchell tells me, "While living in Inglewood I attended ICS (Inglewood Christian School) a small private school with a family type atmosphere and an emphasis on bible study and prayer." His family lived next door to Queen Street Park. "Growing up next door to the park led to some adventurous times as a child," he says. "Never was there not a friend to play with because outside the park was always filled with children. The city has always been diverse, I grew up with Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, Asians, African Americans and Caucasians. From a young age this taught me to judge people by their character and not their appearance."

Mitchell's sweetest memories are at Darby and Rogers Recreational Parks where he was involved in the soccer, football, and basketball programs. He took a strong liking to basketball and began to focus on that solely aside from the other two sports. "My game on the court is known to be scrappy, physical, and passionate, definitely all traits I picked up playing on the streets of Inglewood," he says. "Queen Street and Darby were my home courts but the most physical basketball games I have ever been a part of took place in the back of St. Mary's -- an all-girl Catholic school. We played intense hard fought out games in an area that was about 20 x 15 feet, nowhere near enough space to ensure a safe sports environment."

Mitchell loves Inglewood and has drawn ample inspiration from his youth there. "Inglewood was good to me and I hope to become an ambassador for such a beautiful city that has influenced me as a man," he says. Terence McClain, Michael Massenburg, Deborah Murphy, and Teka-Lark Fleming also share this deep love for Inglewood. The city has changed over the years but still has a dynamic infrastructure and a solid base of creative talent and minds that live within its borders.

The current mayor James T. Butts has big plans to revitalize Downtown Inglewood and he lauds the city's central geographic position within Southern California. Over the last generation the city has also seen a large influx of Latin residents. The combination of the city's great history, emerging art district and new projects underway ensure a bright future for the City of Champions Inglewood is a vibrant city in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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