Leimert Park, Take II: 1992

Two boys do hand stands with the National Guard in the background, May 1, 1992 | Photo: Gary Leonard | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

For the last twenty years, the scene in Leimert Park Village has been a contradiction that embodies the general state of black people in Los Angeles. On the one hand, it is a triumph of survival and self-invention against the odds; on the other, it is a failure of great promise to live up to its full potential.

That said, you'd have to count Leimert Park as an unqualified bright spot, a source of continuing encouragement, despite the declining political fortunes of black folks in the last generation. Twenty-one years ago was in fact the last time that black neighborhoods were in the spotlight, when the world, not just L.A., was paying attention to the frustrations and thwarted hopes of black residents that had literally ignited the 1992 unrest. The big, almost existential question at the time was: were things going to get better? It was a crucial question for many places, but especially for Leimert. Though its arts scene had been developing for years, it had developed more or less under cover; the civil unrest revealed it to the world. The exposure was good and not -- suddenly, everybody knew where South Central was and what was going on, or not going on, here. But the stigma that black neighborhoods had borne since 1965 intensified, but more subtly than before.

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There were lots of clamor about economic redevelopment and rebuilding L.A., clamor that ultimately did not change the reticence of investors and retailers. There were some good signs: Magic Johnson opened his eponymous movie theater complex at the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills mall. But his post-riot attempts to do more ambitious, middle-class development on a larger scale went nowhere. There were small things -- the tiny park at 43rd Place that anchors Leimert Park Village got a face lift, Crenshaw and King Boulevard filled one burned-out lot with a Krispy Kreme donut store. But the mall at the corner, that Mayor Tom Bradley had hoped would alleviate the economic doldrums of the neighborhood where he had once lived, continued to struggle. And Leimert Park, though a very different place than the mall across the way, lived in that shadow.

The truth is that Crenshaw had been rocked hard by the unrest, and Leimert Park was now lumped together with South Central, much the way South Central was lumped together with Watts in the public's mind twenty-seven years earlier. At the same time, the internet was on the rise, and everybody around the globe could discover the lively jazz and arts scene in the Village, including the latest addition of Fifth Street Dick's, a jazz coffeehouse that featured live music into the wee hours; it helped bolster the night life begun by the World Stage around the corner on Degnan. The day life improved too, as the sounds of jazz filled the park and encouraged people to sit for hours and play chess or take in an afternoon. Kaos Network, a media arts center founded by Cal Arts professor and UCLA film school alum Ben Caldwell, was cultivating a youth scene with its hip-hop open-mic nights, Project Blowed, that attracted aspiring artists from all over the city. The story that had been in the works for years was now complete: Degnan, the sleepy little shopping center originally built for a white bedroom community, had been thoroughly reinvented as a nerve center of black culture, conversation and creativity.

Portrait of Mark Ridley Thomas | Photo: Gary Leonard | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Portrait of Mark Ridley Thomas | Photo: Gary Leonard | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The missing link was, and still is, political support. Councilman (now County Supervisor) Mark Ridley-Thomas, elected to the eighth district in 1991, was poised to be the architect of a rebuilt Crenshaw in 1992. The former executive director of the Greater L.A. Southern Christian Leadership Conference knew well that racial and economic justice were intertwined; here was an opportunity to effect some of both. Yet the new councilman never forged a relationship with the Leimert Park Village community. Blame it on a bad mix: Ridley-Thomas could be prickly and standoffish, and many merchants were wary of establishment politicians. For most of his twelve years in office, the Leimert community cast the councilman as arrogant, out of touch, and antithetical to their grassroots vision, while Ridley-Thomas saw the merchants as combative and self-defeating. The loser in this cold war was any significant improvement of the village itself. Things came to a boil when the city sought to install parking meters in the village, which the merchants vehemently opposed. The parking meter fight touched off an anti-Ridley-Thomas campaign that resulted in one Degnan artist regularly posting unflattering cartoons of the councilman in the neighborhood. The parking meters were installed, while Leimert's relationship with city hall chilled even further.

Meanwhile, L.A.'s post-'92 moment was quickly passing. The conversation about black economic development was giving way to a new one -- or a renewed one -- about how South Central was becoming increasingly Latino, and the cultural shift that entailed. The Crenshaw district, with Leimert Park at its center, was officially becoming the last predominantly black area in the city limits. Leimert's arts and cultural scene thus became more crucial than ever, yet it was more vulnerable than ever. Not because Latinos encroached, but because the economic picture of new millennium was turning out to be even worse for blacks than it had been in the '90s. By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, L.A.'s diminished black population was measurably worse off than it had been when the city exploded in anger in '92. The onset of the Great Recession that accompanied -- indeed, aided -- the election of the country's first black president made the picture worse.

Zambezi Bazaar on Degnan Boulevard | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa
Zambezi Bazaar on Degnan Boulevard | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

But the truth is that the diversity and dynamism of Leimert Park at its peak was coming apart years before that. Marla Gibbs' great artistic experiment, Crossroads and the Vision Theater, fell to foreclosure. Dick Fulton of Fifth Street Dick's Jazz Coffeehouse died of cancer in 2000; despite sincere attempts to keep his beloved music going, his place died with him. The venerable Museum in Black was evicted. The Dance Collective, Babe's and Ricky's -- virtually the last blues club left in L.A. -- and Leimert Park Gallery, an airy gallery and performance space at 43rd Street and Degnan, also shuttered. Eateries such as the Sweet Potato Café and Elephant Walk came, and went.

Longtimers like Sika and Zambezi Bazaar held steady, and the block got some great new additions, including Gallery Plus, Eso Won Books, the independent black bookstore and community fixture, and the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, named for the jazz singer. In 2010, Ben Caldwell spearheaded the launch of the Leimert Park Art Walk, a monthly village event patterned after the successful art walks downtown; promoted heavily through social media, the art walk has succeeded in drawing more folks to Leimert and introducing it to a new generation. That same year, noted arts advocate Eileen Norton opened a gallery on Degnan, while her friend and world-renowned artist and L.A. native Mark Bradford began working out of a studio on Leimert Boulevard around the corner from Kaos (the space is a former beauty salon that his mother ran when he was growing up, a place that built the working-class aesthetic of his art.) Sika co-founded the annual African Music and Arts festival on the lot adjacent to his shop. The festival nicely filled the void left by the much bigger L.A. African Marketplace festival that used to run at Rancho Cienega park a couple of miles away. And then Norton's gallery that seemed to signal a revival of Leimert's original art scene of the '70s and '80s closed as quickly as it had opened.

To sum it up, Leimert struggles; there have been some gains over the years, but more loss. Several storefronts along Degnan on both sides of the street are empty, and have been empty a long time.

A visitor at the Nelson Mandela 95th Birthday festival. | Photo: J. Combs for Youth Voices

Whether they got media coverage or not, merchants living on the financial edge always worried about being eventually forced out by higher rents or a change in property ownership. In 2002, when new owners in the village raised rents to market rate, business owners reacted with alarm. But the property owners were within their rights; it was the vulnerability of Leimert Park Village that merchants and others found alarming. Several years later, the "Save Leimert Park" campaign sought to beat back a proposed development plan by lobbying the city for a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone; for a while, the "Save Leimert Park" signs supporting the HPOZ became ubiquitous. But that petered out as Crenshaw residents turned to a new cause that required all the political muscle they could muster -- transportation equity. Activists wanted the MTA to modify a rail stop across the street from Dorsey High that they argued posed a danger to students -- an argument that it eventually won. Next on the agenda was the more daunting task of getting the MTA to put a stop at Leimert Park Village on its upcoming Crenshaw-to-LAX rail line, a route that will run through the heart of the black community. That effort went for another two years before activists again won their argument again this past spring.

It was a significant victory. But victory in Leimert -- and in black communities generally -- always seems short-lived. A few weeks afterward, property on the east side of Degnan Boulevard was bought and the future of Leimert Park Village as an organic black enclave was, in the view of many, once again under a cloud. (It's more than a little ironic to think that if the HPOZ campaign had succeeded, the future of a place that advocates thought so worthy of a rail stop would be more assured of actually being around when the stop is built.) No one has moved yet. But that could change. Sika and Jackie Ryan, co-owner of Zambezi Bazaar, have been speculating about leaving Degnan since early summer. The village stalwarts say they do not want to leave -- they cannot quite imagine a working life without Leimert -- but they are practical. And they have seen plenty come and go. Ryan is optimistic about Leimert Park Village continuing as a touchstone for black L.A., even if she is no longer a part of it. She points out that for all its significance, the village's main drag of Degnan Boulevard between 43rd Street and 43rd Place is a very small street, which in some ways makes saving it eminently doable. It is just a matter of method -- and will. "We should be able to preserve it," Ryan said, with a sigh. "It's just one tiny block on planet Earth."

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