Moving On Up, and Out -- of Downtown Inglewood

Parking lot of an abandoned liquor store in Inglewood, CA, March 14, 2006. | Photograph by Justin Wagner/Brooks Institute of Photography via Flickr/Creative Commons License

My optometrist has moved. For nearly 25 years Dr. Simmons was on Market Street, the old downtown drag in the heart of Inglewood. His office was one of the few stable professional outfits on Market, a great street with lots of potential that the city has squandered so many times over the years, you can practically see the cynicism rising from the asphalt like waves of heat in August.

About the only places I visit regularly on Market are on old-school Big 5 Sporting Goods and a new-ish vegan restaurant called Stuff I Eat; I discovered the latter place on one of my visits to Dr. Simmons because it sits almost directly across the street from where he used to be. I got excited then -- surely the addition of a vegan joint with a cool coffeehouse vibe meant things were on the up and up on Market. Surely, more cool things were coming.

They weren't, or they haven't come yet. Or, as is so often the case in black neighborhoods that struggle continually with development, one encouraging sign will turn out to be an isolated event, not a prelude.

Dr. Simmons just got tired of the isolation, of being the exception. Like lots of other old main streets in small cities across the county, Market is a pedestrian-friendly area designed for all manner of small businesses and services catering to local folks. When I was growing up in the '70s, Market was starting to fail but still had a critical mass of boutiques, movie theaters, shoe stores, drug stores, gift shops, car lots, and novelty shops. You could spend all day there, and I and my friends often did. Thanks to the advent of indoor malls and movie multiplexes -- or no thanks to them -- Market and many other downtowns suffered.

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But many downtowns and small shopping districts reconfigured for a new age and rose again: Culver City, Larchmont, Santa Monica Promenade, Pasadena Old Town. Even the ones that lacked glamorous zip codes embraced new economies built on new immigrant populations. Market has a bit of that -- Inglewood is half Latino, after all -- but that has not countered the collapse of middle-class aspirations with which the city likes to define itself. The failure of city leaders to elevate Market makes a lie of those aspirations, a fact that's getting harder and harder to ignore. We may get a renovated Forum at some point, but what will it matter if people who come see a show can't stop somewhere in town and spend some time, have a meal, measure at their leisure the spirit and ambitions of Inglewood itself?

Dr. Simmons' new digs are in Westchester, a few miles west but in many ways removed from where he came. Its small, pedestrian-friendly street tucked just off Manchester Boulevard isn't fancy, but it's alive with businesses -- a bakery, a hobby and toy shop, Thai restaurant, art gallery. People on lunch breaks stroll through. The office is big, glass-walled, filled with natural light. It's undoubtedly a step up, and in this new context, the practice seems more successful even if it hasn't yet added a single new patient. This is not the community where Dr. Simmons built his business and where I'd hoped he would stay, where he hoped he might stay. But I have to confess that in too many ways, he's in the right place.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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