Smells Like Mean Spirit: Why a Downtown L.A. Developer is Wrong About Inglewood

Musician Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performs at their dress rehearsal for family and friends at the Forum in February. | Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Musician Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performs at their dress rehearsal for family and friends at the Forum in February. | Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

A few weeks ago I expressed mixed feelings about the sale of the Forum to Madison Square Garden and the impending renovations that will involve, among other things, an $18 million loan from the city. I wondered about this kind of prioritizing in a recession-wracked atmosphere that has left Inglewood, like too many small cities across the state, in a deep budget hole and its school district on the brink of insolvency. I do understand the community pinning its economic, civic, and even spiritual hopes on the Forum, the main attraction of Inglewood for so many years. Redeveloping it may be fiscally foolhardy, but shuttering it would feel like something far worse.

I'll put aside that ambiguity for the moment to address the snide comments about Inglewood made in an L.A. Times story this week on MSG's plans to revive the Forum. In the story, Tim Lieweke, president of Staples owner AEG, suggested that Inglewood itself is a context that simply can't appeal to the masses as a major entertainment center. You know, too scary. According to the Times, Leiweke and his AEG cohorts "were quick to raise questions about the security of the neighborhood surrounding the Forum and dismissed it as a 'class B' venue."

"We are very certain of our customer experience, their safety and the vibrancy of our campus," Leiweke went on. "We are going vigorously protect our own town."

"Our own town," meaning what, L.A.? Protect L.A. from the threat of MSG, or protect it from the threat of Inglewood? I know this was chiefly chest-thumping by local AEG for the benefit of a rival entertainment-venue owner parachuting in from the East Coast. But the racial insult directed at Inglewood was clear. Casting aspersions on the security of a neighborhood (though Inglewood is a nine-square-mile city of 120,000) is the preferred way to express such insults these days. But Leiweke went further by contrasting the "safety and vibrancy" of the area around Staples and with the presumably questionable area around the Forum. Who is he kidding? Figueroa and 9th is hardly an urban oasis. I'm not saying Manchester and Prairie is either, but it's certainly no more forbidding than south of downtown. Almost certainly less. For years before the Forum was bought by Faithful Central Bible Church in 2000, the massive Forum parking lot was a popular spot to walk dogs, jog, skateboard, practice motorcycle moves, fly kites -- the kind of boring, leisure-time stuff that marks a middle-class place, not the urban jungle infamously depicted in the movie "The Grand Canyon" and resurrected by AEG this week.

Then there's the fact that the Forum did just fine in Inglewood for 33 years, attracting major acts even as the demographics of the city shifted. As MSG pointed out, the appeal of the place endures; the fact that Prince held a series of instantly legendary concerts at the Forum last year instead of Staples says a lot. And of course AEG didn't mention the oppressive arrangement it made with Faithful Central back in 2000 that made it more difficult for the inexperienced church to book top-tier acts than it should have been.

In the end, though, the biggest question for me is not what AEG or anybody else thinks of my town. The question is whether Inglewood can really capitalize this time on a fully operational Forum, something it had failed to do for at least twenty years before the Lakers and Kings called it quits. If city officials don't see their own place as a class A venue, then we the people -- not Madison Square Gardens or the concertgoers -- will lose again for sure.

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.