The following article was originally republished April 9, 2021 through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.
Story by Caroline Champlin
This is the second in a series of stories on how different communities around L.A. County have weathered the pandemic. Our first story profiled Burbank's Magnolia Park.
In the South L.A. neighborhood of Leimert Park, nearly 80% of the residents are Black — making it one of the few majority Black neighborhoods in the county and a cherished enclave.
Three years ago, Leimert Plaza Park was fenced off by the city for a restoration project. The park's gates don't open much these days. The office of Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas says it's still working to find shelter for unhoused residents living around the park, a process that could take months, if not longer.
Leimert residents have mourned the temporary loss of a space known for hosting festivals, talks and street vendors. But just north of the park, around Degnan Boulevard, you'll still find a panoply of Black-owned restaurants, clothing stores, health stores and vendors.
Sunday is the time to be there. You'll probably get a chance to listen to a drum circle, or catch a fashion show or a concert. Once, someone hosted a homegoing ceremony for their mom. Film crews routinely take over the whole strip (HBO's "Insecure" was there recently).
Locals confirm what's already clear: business is booming.
Growing up in Jamaica, Marlene Beckford always had food on her mind. She remembers using what was on hand, such as flour, green bananas, and yams to "run boat," a patois phrase meaning to put together a quick meal.
"Even as children, as long as we have a little flour we could make our dumplings." Beckford said. "As a teenager ... I would buy pots and pans and I would store them under my bed."
Beckford moved to the United States in 1977 and began working for Kaiser Permanente. Her dream, though, was to share Jamaican spices and flavors, like "ackee," a soft, yellow fruit with the texture of avocado. It's the main ingredient in the country's national dish, ackee and saltfish.
When her kids were still young, Beckford quit her job and opened Ackee Bamboo, a Jamaican restaurant on Degnan Boulevard. Sixteen years later, she's something of a Leimert fixture.
"We keep pushing and we're still here," Beckford said.
The beginning of the pandemic was scary, she said. The landlord of the building that's home to Ackee Bamboo posted a notice saying everything would be shut down.
"I thought to myself, Well, what are we going to do? I have a mortgage. I have a staff that relies on us," Beckford said. "I decided, no, we're not going to do that."
Beckford checked the L.A. County health guidelines and pushed back against the landlord, who relented. She was allowed to stay open for takeout and delivery, which went pretty well at first.
Then last summer, the Black Lives Matter protests and Juneteenth celebration brought thousands of people to Leimert Park.
"Then we got a tweet out from Beyoncé and that was another blessing," Beckford said. "We couldn't stop because, how could you deny your blessings?"Ackee Bamboo has been able to keep staff on throughout the pandemic. At this point, Beckford is optimistic about the future of her restaurant, and the new businesses opening up around her.
"It's all positive," Beckford said. "But our mindset has to be positive too, towards all the changes that are coming."
A few doors down from Ackee Bamboo is one of those new businesses: the clothing store cooperative Sole Folks, which sells the work of Black designers. It opened last Juneteenth, filling a void in Leimert Park by offering streetwear styles for the "younger generation in the community," its website says.
Brand Manager Ferriss Mason decides what the store carries.
"I just feel like it's my divine purpose to be of service to my community — Black people," she said.
At first, Sole Folks was selling six brands. Now, it's up to 40. Some designers are making around $4,000 a month, according to Mason.
"The pandemic has helped put a highlight on the community," she said. "It's been a really good thing, actually."
Designers selling through Sole Folks, including Mason, have received grants from businesses to help them through the past year. Sole Folks has become a neighborhood presence, hosting weekend events, such as a recent fashion show.
And Sole Folks is expanding. This summer, it plans to launch an incubator program for young Black entrepreneurs. There's also a juice bar in the works.
"People know, if you want to be around like-minded creatives ... this is where you come," Mason said.
Brick-and-mortar stores are one part of Leimert Park's business community. The street vendors are also central to the neighborhood's identity.
Down the street from a recent Sole Folks fashion show, vendor W.L. Jackson, Jr. was selling cannabis.
"You have people that just cook food, people that make clothes, people that deal with literature," he said. "We all represent Leimert as a whole."
Jackson, who goes by Lay Low, has been in the cannabis business for eight years. His brand is called Grandma's Remedy.
"Everybody's grandma has some type of remedy," he said. "If you look at my logo, it's a grandma with no face. So when you look at her, you see your grandma."
Jackson grows his own organic plants in an L.A. greenhouse, with no animal products — except for ladybugs that eat pests.
"I only enter the greenhouse if I'm happy," he said. "So no bad vibes or nothing like that."
Jackson started selling his cannabis in Leimert six months ago, at the invitation of other vendors. Coming from the Watts area, several miles south, he hardly knew anyone and felt intimidated. The pandemic helped him get a foothold, Jackson said, by slowing people down.
"It allowed me to mingle and get around folks that usually ... wouldn't have looked at me," he said.
A few weeks ago, Jackson sold a $75 joint, the VIP CEO premium, to a producer who's worked with Kanye West. That's the sort of clientele he's hoping to cultivate by staying in Leimert as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
"A lot of new buildings are being built, a lot of new people coming out from every different background," Jackson said. "The point is, Leimert is getting bigger, it's getting better, and it's prospering as a community."
By the end of this year, the new Crenshaw/LAX Metro line is supposed to be finished, including a Leimert Park stop. For some, there's trepidation about rents going up.
Jackson, though, is excited about the neighborhood's future. He welcomes people of all backgrounds to visit — and spend money.