It's hard to believe, but Zambezi Bazaar has closed.
Since 1991, the African-themed gift and craft shop in the middle of Degnan Boulevard has been a flagship store in tiny Leimert Park Village, a critical space in the village's black art and retail scene the last twenty years. Zambezi has always been much more than a shop. Owners and sisters Jackie Ryan and Mary Kimbrough, and their brother Alden Kimbrough, have provided a gathering place for the black community in Crenshaw and beyond, hosting lectures and artist receptions and serving as a hangout for the many artistically and politically inclined black crowd that has had such few public places in L.A. I have been among those people; when I first started out as a reporter in 1992, Zambezi's (then Congo Square) storefront, with its wooden zebra on the sidewalk, was a familiar sight, a marker of local black history that began in the '60s in Leimert with Brockman Gallery, an art gallery also owned by siblings, Dale and Alonzo Davis. Over the years Degnan added several more elements -- gift shops, craft stores, jazz spots, a dance studio, theater complex, a museum of black artifacts. The diversity of places in so small a space was impressive, but more impressive was the grassroots energy that fueled the whole scene for so many years. Times got tough, but Leimert survived.
Now, Leimert Park is poised on the brink of change that could finally push it past survival mode and into a new status and aesthetic visibility that it has frankly always needed. But the price of progress may be the loss of businesses like Zambezi that, despite being the soul of the village, have always lived on the financial edge. A year ago, several storefronts along Degnan were purchased after the MTA voted to put a rail stop in the village along its upcoming Crenshaw-to-LAX line. One of those properties was Zambezi. Tenants were told to pay or quit, and after struggling to pay full rent on time -- previous property owners had been flexible that way -- Zambezi decided last month to close for good. Almost at the same moment, a new gallery called Papillion quietly opened next door to Zambezi. (It's more than a little symbolic that Zambezi is vacating the space once occupied by Brockman.) Papillion is a first-rate gallery, an airy, light-filled space that opened with a group show of several emerging black artists whose strikingly contemporary and conceptual works are a shot in the arm to Degnan, a scene that has long been insular and somewhat sleepy.
And more efforts like Papillion are on the way, according to Ben Caldwell, another village longtimer and one of few business owners who also owns property. Caldwell runs KAOS Network, a media arts center on 43rd Place that has always embodied a kind of forward thinking about the village and black arts that Caldwell admits has been hard to implement. But the moment of implementation may have finally arrived. Along with renowned artist Mark Bradford -- another fellow property owner -- Caldwell has been deeply involved in plans to step up the art scene in Leimert Park with the addition of galleries, cafes, and other amenities that will help the area maximize the potential it has always had. "We've always been at the center of things, we just never really owned it," he said. "Now's the time." Caldwell has been steadily building towards this: in 2011 he launched the Leimert Park Artwalks, held the last Sunday of every month; recently he kicked off Last Weekends, a regular series of pre-Artwalk events that include musical and theatrical performances.
The good news in all this is clear. Leimert will be returning to its roots as the place for black visual artists. If all goes well, the bolstered art scene will raise Leimert's profile, attract more visitors, and make the village more economically stable. Last but hardly least, the new owners (a collective that has been careful not to reveal the names of is individuals) appear to have a concerted interest in growing a black arts community, not tearing it down or paving it over with generic retail stores, as merchants have long feared. In fact, the current scenario is actually what merchants have always described as ideal -- owners who are truly vested in not just preserving the spirit of Leimert, but growing it. The question is how many of the businesspeople who have stuck it out for so long will be able to stick around now to help bring that ideal to fruition. So far, Zambezi is the only business closing its doors, though the World Stage and Sika, two other village anchors whose spaces have also been purchased, have voiced concern about their future. If they can stay put, that will be another bit of good news indeed.
Caldwell admits he isn't happy about Zambezi pulling up stakes; he considers the Kimbroughs friends and fellow travelers, not to mention a crucial part of the Leimert scene the last couple of decades. But as the village's longest longtimer -- he actually worked at Brockman while a student at UCLA -- he is excited about the new developments that he is helping to bring about. James Fugate is thrilled. Fugate is co-owner of Eso Won Books, an independent black bookstore and local institution that moved from La Brea Avenue to the west side of Degnan seven years ago. Fugate has been saying ever since, that what the block needs is a critical mass of businesses that can fill the many empty storefronts and keep regular hours. Black culture is fine, he says -- that's his business, after all. But without the economic infrastructure to sustain it, culture won't have a chance. "This is the best news I've heard in years," said Fugate about the changes afoot in Leimert on a recent Saturday before the Papillion opening. "It's just what this community needs. You can't have four functional storefronts out of 24, you need five or six serious shops employing 200 to 300 people." Fugate added that he hopes the new gallery and other new additions will attract people who might wander across the street to browse in his shop.
Fugate is right, of course: in the end, every enterprise is a business, and businesses either thrive or they don't. But just as important are the intangibles that give businesses character and a life of their own. The unique spirit of the village, the grassroots feel that invites hanging out, the hanging out that complements the activity in the park -- including drum circles and rallies for every important black cause and charged moment, from Justice for Trayvon Martin to, well, save Save Leimert Park Village -- will that endure? Will the prestige that comes with gallery culture -- bluntly put, the infusion of money and the increasing interest of non-black patrons -- quash the street culture and reputation of black independence that has been so essential to Leimert? Will this small space remain the big tent for black folks, open to artists and professionals, working-class stiffs and philosopher kings? Or will the appeal of the place narrow as it moves up? Leimert Park Village is at a crossroads that speaks to the riddle of assimilation that blacks have wrestled with forever. The big question underlying all others is, how do you break out of isolation and claim your rightful place in the mainstream, while maintaining traditions that have kept people together and cultural ties strong? Given the diminishing presence of blacks in L.A. and elsewhere, those traditions and ties are more crucial than ever.
One final bit of good news is that they are sturdier than I assumed; one thing I've come to believe after covering Crenshaw and Leimert Park all these years is that black tradition will survive even if places like Zambezi do not. Though it's nearing closure, Zambezi seemed as lively as ever on a recent Sunday. "Blacks on Blues," a monthly lecture series about black musical history and culture led by Lance Williams, attracted its usual fan base, crowded in Zambezi's small upstairs room; the topic for February, Black History Month, was the blues connection to the late poet and blues scholar Amiri Baraka. At the end of the lecture, Williams launched into a spontaneous but passionate encomium for Zambezi as a place that championed black culture by providing a space where people could learn their history and share knowledge. Jackie Ryan, initially distressed about the closure, now seems more circumspect, even optimistic; she's thinking about relocating Zambezi to another space in the village. But for now she seems resigned -- in a good way -- to shutting down what had always been less a business than a vocation. The place will close, but the vocation goes on. And the vocation is not hers alone. "Our (black) culture is 500 years old, something for which we've all fought and survived," she said. "That's why people come here to Leimert. This is your black home."