Crenshaw is a mess. Not the neighborhood, the boulevard itself. Thanks to twin construction horrors of the new Metro underway on the north end and gas line upgrade on the south end in Inglewood, the street that was once reliably free-flowing at all hours is now anything but. I'm only speaking about roughly six miles of the Crenshaw's entire 23 miles that runs from Wilshire Boulevard all the way out to the rolling hills of South Bay (where, I suppose, it just kind of fades; I've actually never driven all the way to that end of it. Never needed to.) But for many people I know, and to the rest of the world that knows anything about L.A. topography, that is Crenshaw, the heart of the boulevard that's best known for Leimert Park and "Boyz n the Hood" and low-rider cruising on Sunday nights. It's also the main boundary of touted black middle-class enclaves like Baldwin Hills and View Park and, of course, Leimert. Crenshaw is literally a line, one that divides and also connects, countless times a day. For me it's that main-street backstreet to points north like Hollywood and mid-Wilshire when La Brea is too far west, out or reach. For all its traffic lights and general busyness, this stretch of Crenshaw has always moved. It's reasonable. It does what it's never assumed to be able to do. It defies low expectations. I can't recall a single time that traffic was so sluggish that I was caught sitting in an intersection when a light turned red. La Brea and La Cienega don't even come close to that, and don't get me started on Hawthorne or Sepulveda. No doubt about it, Crenshaw is in a class by itself.
All that's changed now. The Metro construction has been slowly but surely narrowing the heart of Crenshaw lane by lane; at Vernon in Leimert Park, traffic flow is down to a trickle. At Exposition, Crenshaw is blocked and impassable, forcing drivers to re-route east to Arlington or west to La Brea, both of which have their own issues. Further south along Crenshaw into Inglewood, where I am, crews have been plowing up the street for utility improvements for at least the last couple of months. Heading north I've often had no choice but to cobble together a route of residential streets and intersections too minor to rate traffic lights or even street signs. I don't like the thought this requires, the fact that I can no longer expect to get from Inglewood to Baldwin Hills in twelve minutes on Crenshaw. That's been the whole beauty of the boulevard, and the general lack of appreciation for this beauty has always made me feel smug, more than a bit superior. Now Crenshaw is becoming merely another congested mess in a sea of L.A. messes. It's losing its edge.
I know this is temporary. The construction will eventually end (though in the case of Metro, not for years ). But I already worry about Crenshaw being inevitably changed, not meaning what it means now. A train running down its middle will change its character, and its local function; I can't imagine a Metro-fied boulevard being quite the great bridge and the great divide it's been up to this point. It can't remain my secret anti-traffic weapon, my clever back channel to better known destinations that often seem entirely unaware of it ("You got here how?" people in West Hollywood have asked me, with a puzzled look. "How far is Crenshaw from here?") I also know that in this case, change will be progress. The whole point of building the Crenshaw Line and adding the bike lanes near Leimert is to discourage the number of cars on the road, period. I admitted that in last week's column about CivicLAvia. It's a good goal, a worthy goal. I'm glad it was expressed so emphatically at that event. I couldn't agree more. I was thrilled to see Crenshaw and all of South Central reimagining itself as cyclist- and pedestrian-welcome, no longer a tired civic joke passed over by the 10 freeway.
And yet. I'm not ready to give up Crenshaw. I'm reluctant to surrender the street that's my car's best friend when time is of the essence and I've got to go north in a hurry. I can do that in a train or even a bus. But travelling the boulevard is private; in my car I almost always go it alone. It's not just a shortcut or a through line, it's a meditation: twenty minutes or so of taking stock, musing at Slauson and 48th and Vernon, and other checkpoints on where the community is and where it's going.
Now, if everything goes right, I'll have some company in that reflection. I really need it, though I don't exactly want it. Riding Crenshaw is one bit of privacy that, I realize, I guard jealously. I'll enjoy it while it lasts.