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A woman breathes out as white doves fly in the mural "Our Mighty Contribution"
A woman breathes out as white doves fly in the mural "Our Mighty Contribution." | Carren Jao

The Great Wall of Crenshaw and the Ongoing Story of Black Los Angeles

Since the 1990s, Los Angeles has become less African American, as a way to hold onto their cultural integrity, Black Angelenos have turned to public art to help tell their ongoing story.
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The following series documents key aspects of life in Black Los Angeles, informed by the archives and work of Gregory Everett, and guided by Dr. Daniel E. Walker.

All the women have afros. Three hold their fists in the air, while a fourth cocks a shotgun. Her weapon and sunglasses set her apart from her leather-clad comrades.

Ask South Los Angeles residents which image on the 800-foot Great Wall of Crenshaw captures their attention, and many name this portrait of Black Panther women.

Whenever filmmaker Tasha Hunter sees the wall, near Crenshaw Boulevard and 50th Street, she notices something new, but the image of the Black Panther women consistently stands out. "It's like I always look for the Black Panther women," admits Hunter, who adds that choosing a favorite section of the Crenshaw Wall is by no means easy. "There are so many great parts."

Three women in shades and afros are depicted in the mural "Our Mighty Contribution."
Three women in shades and afros are depicted in the mural "Our Mighty Contribution." | Carren Jao

Altogether, the images on the wall, which form one huge mural known as "Our Mighty Contribution," retell Black history. The visual narrative includes paintings of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Jimi Hendrix, activists Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and ancient Egyptian figures, among other Black History greats. A graffiti collective called Rocking the Nation first painted the mural about 20 years ago, but locals recall that the wall has been the site of political and pro-Black street art since the 1960s.

"I think everyone gravitates to that Black Panther portion of the mural because it's very evocative," said Lawrence C. Ross Jr., co-owner of The Metaphor Club, a coworking space on Crenshaw Boulevard. "Murals like that typically have a focal point, and, in this case, it's the Black Panther art that evokes the most response from people. It resonates with the idea of self-determination within the Black community, particularly within a shrinking Black population in Los Angeles."

Federick Douglass and other African American people are depicted in the mural "Our Mighty Contribution."
"Our Mighty Contribution" includes portrayals of Frederick Douglass, a Civil War soldier and slave among many others. | Carren Jao

As South L.A. has changed over the decades — enduring white flight, social unrest, economic downturns, and currently, gentrification and urban redevelopment — the wall has been a stable presence. But it's also in need of restoration, an effort led for years by community activists such as filmmaker and hip-hop historian Gregory "G Bone" Everett, who died of COVID-19 complications last year in January. Now under construction, the 1.3-mile open-air museum Destination Crenshaw, which runs along Crenshaw Boulevard and is set to feature 100 art pieces by notable Black artists, will restore the wall. The facelift includes art preservation, structural support and the additions of a parklet, signage, shade and landscaping to the landmark.

Everett cared deeply about the wall and would have celebrated this development, according to Paul Watson III, a local television producer and friend of the late activist.

"I know that he felt very strongly about that restoration, and he was one of those people who would really be a main proponent of that," Watson said. "Gregory was a proponent of the neighborhood. He felt it was very important that Black people in Los Angeles had their own and that they were equally valued in society. And so he was very much a big part of the Crenshaw community, and the Crenshaw Wall was an extension of that."

The Crenshaw Wall matters so much to the neighborhood because it has long been a gathering space, a beloved site for hip-hop artists, and a barometer of the sociopolitical climate in South L.A., say local artists and activists. As Destination Crenshaw ushers in the wall's next chapter, community members celebrate the role local stakeholders have played in this multimillion-dollar effort to revitalize the area. Yet, they also ponder how economic redevelopment can change the fabric of a neighborhood for better or worse. However the community evolves, they're certain the Crenshaw Wall will remain a familiar and steady presence, for it's not just a fixture in the neighborhood, they say, but an embodiment of Black Los Angeles.

The Importance of the Crenshaw Wall

Long before "Our Mighty Contribution" became a two-decade-long presence on the Crenshaw Wall, artists used to periodically paint different murals there, recalled Ross, who was born and raised in nearby Inglewood in the 1970s and '80s.

"Growing up, it was the very first piece of public art that most kids [in the area] saw," the 55-year-old said of the wall. "Different artists used to create different pieces there around every six months or every year, and they almost always reflected what was going on in the Black community, or what was going on in the world. A particular mural would be up for a while and then you would look and see an artist preparing another mural, and that mural would be completely different from the previous mural and so on and so forth."

The painting of "Our Mighty Contribution" largely curbed the tradition of rotating art on the wall, Ross said. Newcomers to the area or residents too young to remember any other art on the landmark primarily associate the Crenshaw Wall with the Black history mural that has appeared on it for the past 20 years. And while the wall's mere existence was once uncommon knowledge to anyone outside South L.A., now the monument has fans and supporters worldwide.

A mural that has the words "in the beginning"
"Our Mighty Contribution" starts with the words "in the beginning." | Carren Jao

This development is thanks, in part, to activists like Everett who fought for the wall's restoration. "Gregory Everett was like the embodiment of Black L.A going all the way back to the cultural activities that you find in this community," Ross said. "Greg was a great guy, and it's almost surreal that he's not here." Everett was widely known for his 2010 documentary "41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Chapter of the Black Panther Party."

Hunter points out that celebrities from the area, such as actress and producer Issa Rae, who has highlighted South L.A. on her HBO show "Insecure," and rapper Nipsey Hussle, who did so in his music, have also drawn attention to the community. In addition to being a hip-hop artist, Hussle was an activist and investor in South L.A. — taking part in the Destination Crenshaw project and opening up the Marathon Clothing Store on Slauson Avenue, just off Crenshaw Boulevard. On March 31, 2019, Hussle was gunned down outside his business, sending the community into mourning and prompting former President Barack Obama to compose a letter about the rapper's importance to South L.A.

The Crenshaw Wall has not only gained recognition because of the efforts of individuals like Hussle and Everett, but also because gentrification has led to people who were once unfamiliar with South L.A. buying homes in the community. After settling in, these transplants are exposed to artistic landmarks like "Our Mighty Contribution."

"The Crenshaw District and Leimert Park and all these other Black neighborhoods — for years, people would shun our areas," Ross said. "So, typically, people could live their whole lives and never step foot in South Central L.A. Now, white people are coming into the traditionally Black areas and buying houses for prices that are maybe a third less than what they would find in Mid-City or the Westside."

Since the 1990s, Los Angeles has become less African American — making up 11% of the population in 1990 to 9% today. Some African Americans moved out of South Los Angeles to areas such as the Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire, where they could afford homes and avoid the violence that plagued South L.A. during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. Others left California entirely, taking part in a national trend of Black Americans who have left overpriced cities in the North and the West for their less expensive counterparts in the South.

Having hosted arts and culture activities in Leimert Park for 25 years, Hunter has previously witnessed economic downturns and upswings in the community. As South L.A. becomes a destination for groups who have not recently called it home — large numbers of whites and Japanese Americans lived there decades ago — she appreciates seeing Black-owned businesses get the support they need to thrive. At the same time, Hunted said, it's important for community landmarks like the Great Wall of Crenshaw to be preserved.

"There are certain community staples that are kind of like sacred grounds," she said. "You have to mold your communities around things that need to be preserved, and with [the Crenshaw Wall], it's something that should have been done a very long time ago."

The danger of gentrification, according to Ross, is that "you start to lose something that you really don't recognize that you've lost until it's gone."

Destination Crenshaw, however, aims to preserve the cultural integrity of South L.A. while fostering economic redevelopment in the community.

Destination Crenshaw

Destination Crenshaw is far more than an open-air art museum, its advocates say, but an effort to keep South L.A. culturally intact while creating jobs, attracting companies and boosting the profile of existing businesses. With multiple parks and gathering spaces as part of its design, the project also intends to be a community hub. The idea for Destination Crenshaw stems from the Los Angeles Metro's imminent Crenshaw-LAX light rail line, a $2.14 billion project that will span 8.5-miles sandwiched between businesses, houses and other properties on Crenshaw Boulevard.

A triangular shaped park seen overhead.
An overhead view of Sankofa Park, which is a part of Destination Crenshaw. It will feature the works for Maren Hassinger, Kehinde Wiley and Charles Dickson. | Rendering by Perkins&Will, courtesy of Destination Crenshaw

Three years before construction on the rail line started in 2014, South L.A. community members raised concerns about the impact the project would have on longtime Black businesses and residents. They particularly feared that gentrification would uproot many of them. Instead, Destination Crenshaw — spearheaded by Los Angeles Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson — will use art to highlight the multigenerational presence of African Americans in South L.A. Collectively, Destination Crenshaw's artwork, architecture and landscaping will chronicle the contributions and cultural impact of this community.

The project "is the summation of years of community engagement," said Jason Foster, president and chief operating officer of Destination Crenshaw. "It is community spaces, workforce development programs through construction, small business services and really stabilizing those businesses along the corridor. It is public art as a way to kind of celebrate the Black community and actually acknowledge the permanence of Black community in L.A."

But the ultimate goal, Foster said, is to determine how to improve the surrounding community and provide opportunities for residents to stay, which is why the project set a goal to to hire 70% of its construction workforce locally. It has also organized public forums to allow community members to participate in the design and planning process. Made up of community and nonprofit leaders, stakeholders and artists, Destination Crenshaw's community advisory council, formed in 2017 and meets quarterly.

A black structure is seen in a park featuring mostly African American people.
I AM Park is a part of Destination Crenshaw and will feature the work of Brenna Youngblood. | Rendering by Perkins&Will, courtesy of Destination Crenshaw
A black structure is seen in a park featuring mostly African American people with young children.
I AM Park is a part of Destination Crenshaw. | Rendering by Perkins&Will, courtesy of Destination Crenshaw

Foster fondly refers to the advisory council members as his "bosses," because "those are the people that I rely on," he said. It was important, he continued, to both seek community input about the project and identify ways for residents to benefit from the project in tangible ways. That's a vision Everett supported, Watson said.

"G-Bone was definitely one who was for Black people buying and continuing to own the land in our community because other people are buying up this precious land, and we should be," he said. "We should not just readily be giving that away to other people who come into the community."

The first phase of Destination Crenshaw is set to wrap up by April 2023. By next year, pocket parks, streetscapes, street furniture and wayfinding signage to alert people that they've arrived at Destination Crenshaw will have all been done. He anticipates that businesses along the corridor will benefit from the foot traffic associated with the Metro train. And existing landmarks such as the Crenshaw Wall will remain community draws.

People walk inside a triangular park.
A rendering for the future Sankofa Park, which is a part of Destination Crenshaw. | Rendering by Perkins&Will, courtesy of Destination Crenshaw

"The Crenshaw Wall is a community monument," Foster said. "And the reason we feel like it's so important is because it really speaks to the community's feelings, aspirations, hopes. Honestly, it's the core of what the community represents at certain times, so it truly is a community monument."

In many ways, Foster suggested, the Crenshaw Wall birthed Destination Crenshaw because it points to the need for public art and cultural landmarks. To that end, Ross said that the open-air museum will fill a void by allowing Black Los Angeles to take in the arts and culture that they've typically had to leave the area to access.

"Any form of art is a form of power..." written on the side of a weathered steel structure.
A weathered steel structure is a part of a rendering for Sankofa Park, a part of Destination Crenshaw. | Rendering by Perkins&Will, courtesy of Destination Crenshaw

"I shouldn't have to go to the Westside or anywhere outside of my community to see great public art or the celebration of public art," Ross said. "Destination Crenshaw is a wonderful type of project for that, and our council member needs to get kudos for that."

While Ross welcomes and applauds Destination Crenshaw, he does not want it to function as a time capsule of sorts for Black Los Angeles.

"We just have to make sure that it's not a final monument to a shrinking Black community," he said. "That's what we don't want. We don't want something that says, 'Black people once were here.' We want something that actually says, 'Black people are here, and this is just one of the living monuments that show our presence."

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