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Dead End for Degnan? World Stage Eviction Could be Harbinger for Leimert Park

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The World Stage in Leimert Park is slated for closure.
The World Stage in Leimert Park is slated for closure. | Photo: J. Combs/Flickr for KCET's Departures Youth Voices program, which is currently working in Leimert Park.

The federal government shutdown is over, for the moment. Another shutdown that's been possible for years now feels dangerously imminent, though if it happens it will be permanent. And the loss will be incalculable.

I'm talking about Degnan Boulevard, that tiny spot in Leimert Park that is in many ways the heart of the entire Crenshaw district. The strip between 43rd Street and 43rd Place is a small but potent collection of black and African-themed shops, restaurants, galleries, and street life that exists nowhere else in the city.

Music has also been a mainstay: the ambitiously-named World Stage, co-founded by poet Kamau Daaood (a Watts Writers Workshop alum) and jazz drummer Billy Higgins, has featured top-notch jazz performances over the years by headliners like Higgins to local greats like Dwight Trible and Nedra Wheeler; it is also a workshop space for musicians and poets.

Around the corner on 43rd Place, Fifth Street Dick's jazz coffeehouse garnered global attention for its marathon jazz sessions and for the rags-to-riches story of proprietor Richard Fulton, a former denizen of Skid Row who dreamt of opening his own jazz spot one day. Dick died years ago and the dream coffeehouse more or less died with him, but not his legacy of building community through arts and culture. Degnan's always been about that.

Degnan Boulevard has been famous. But it has never been prosperous. Even at the peak of its fame in the early '90s, as it was showing riot-torn black L.A. a different way to build and rebuild, its merchants often struggled to pay the rent. Merchants talked continually about the importance of owning the property to preserve the scene, but a plan of ownership was never devised. Nor was City Hall very helpful, mainly because the business folk on Degnan had such fractured relationships with the councilpeople, notably Mark Ridley-Thomas, the county supervisor who started his political career as councilman for the 8th district.

Last year, Leimert Park was wrested from the 8th and put into the 10th after a bloody redistricting fight led, and won, by Council President Herb Wesson, who represents the 10th.

Which brings us to now, to this week and to the imminent shutdown. After Metro decided to build a light rail stop in Leimert Park earlier this year, the property along Degnan was swiftly bought, and all of a sudden the fate of the tenants, and the whole vibe of Degnan, was again threatened: This week, the World Stage announced it would be closing.

It's hard to imagine that other places, faced with higher rents and month-to-month leases, won't be following suit. Eso Won Books, which has hosted every notable black author including Barack Obama, has been hanging on for years, threatened like so many bookstores by Amazon.com, e-books and other internet phenomena. But it has always bounced back. Of course, like other business on the block, it's not just a bookstore but a gathering place, a rare spot that attracts black people from literally all over the map, from tony Baldwin Hills to the furthest corner of South Central. It's tragic and bitterly ironic to think that Eso Won might finally succumb to higher rents imposed by new owners looking to capitalize on the visibility a metro stop will bring to Leimert Park, known for its village of grassroots black culture. The last place like it in town.

City Hall is still silent. Herb Wesson appears largely uninterested in the fate of Leimert Park. That an African-American elected official would take such an attitude toward something important to African-Americans is painful, but not unprecedented. It is also politics. Degnan merchants have no money, no lobbyists, no official voice in any hall of power. It never has. Its loss and the loss of Degnan as we know it would be distressing, but it would have no political consequence.

The same feels increasingly true of black L.A. itself. If it cannot rouse itself to save Degnan, this little place that holds our highest aspirations, we lose more than a little of our soul. That's something none of us can afford.

This summer, KCET's Departures, an interactive look at L.A. neighborhoods, launched its ongoing Leimert Park series. Check it out here.

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