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Black Space Articulated: From the Inside Out

Leimert Park is a phenomenon, nothing but a phenomenon. Like Central Avenue was a phenomenon; Harlem was a Black phenomenon. Itís where people gathered. It had all of this energy. It became a bright light where it should not have been. And, look, what people donít recognize is that even South Central is a well of energy.
-Richard Fulton, owner of Fifth Street Dickís Coffee House

I donít even have a need to want to go out, because this is it, this is the place to be. So itís really a blessing and an honor to be here, because people kind of stumble upon this place. They come and say, "Oh my God I didnít know this place was here," and pretty soon they are coming every weekend and they feel connected, so there is something bigger than all of us here.
 -Vanessa Taylor, owner of Flower Nuts Florist

Whether or not they are provided municipal assistance, the merchants go about their way of making daily culture real in a city that celebrates culture by the calendar, not by the birthright. And the people come.
 -A. Asadullah Samad, "No Meters in Leimert Park!" LA Watts Times
 
  "The Jungle," "the Ghetto," and "the Hood" are common euphemisms often offered to describe the vast region and diverse communities that South Central is comprised of. To the unknowing eye South Central appears to be one festering area scarring the infinite glitz, sunshine, and palm tree vision with an amalgamation of brown and black faces posed as ever threatening to the more prosperous and paler regions of LA County. Or, an area caught in considerable mourning intensified by a not so distant uprising, riot, or rebellion, depending on oneís stance of what occurred in the Spring of 1992, which reminded the nation that not all in the City of Angels live in paradise. It is often against one-dimensional sound bites such as these that the rich, complex and blossoming communities of South Central find themselves struggling against to define themselves both from within and outside of their communities. Leimert Park Village is such a location. Within a small region has arisen a virtual arena of warring words and vision that are cast by local residents, merchants, and outsiders who all justifiably claim stakes in defining the immediate and future existence of this unique area. This project seeks to explore how language is used to help, hinder, hide or highlight efforts of revitalization within the Village, the commercial and residential core of Leimert Park. Voices of local merchants, artists, residents, and non-profit community staff are at the core of this project, as they are at the heart of this community. Interviews were gathered from five merchants, some are artists, all reside locally. An interview was also granted by the recently hired executive director of the Leimert Park Village Community Development, a non-profit organization that emerged as a result of the 1992 uprising. Aligned with and sometimes against these utterances are others whose research will be referenced. Such as, work mostly by urban scholars, sociologists, local press, and city and state development teams.

The Leimert Park Village is nestled in a predominately working and middle-class African-American community in the Los Angeles basin. Surronding it are large main streets and well traveled freeways. The Village itself is comprised of a vibrant mixture of small businesses, art galleries, eateries, community centers, a museum, a park and residential neighborhoods with apartments and some homes ranging into the mid $650,000 range. Statistics from the 1990 census reveal that residents in this area have an almost ten percent higher high school graduation rate, 76.3%, compared to the 67% of the Los Angeles population and 54.3% have attended or completed college, compared to the 47.8% of other Angeleons. 

The Village in Leimert Park has emerged as "the" African-American cultural mecca in Los Angeles. It is ideally located for those who desire a mix of suburban and urban living options. It is within 6-8 miles to other, more well-known LA cultural and commercial areas. Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive; LAX; the Great Western Forum; Hollywood Race Track and Casino; Century City; USC and Exposition Park; the Coliseum and various county museums, and the Los Angeles Downtown financial and shopping districts are to name a few. Perhaps most notably is the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza. Which has in the past decade undergone major renovation and expansion and is home to the first Magic Johnson Movie Theatre, a successful twelve screen venue. 


 

And, naturally when I saw what happened to Crenshaw Boulevard [during the 1992 disturbance]Öwhen I was a kid it was one of the most beautiful streets in Los Angeles and it really broke my heart to see what happened to it and that I am also happy to see that they are revitalizing it.

The cultural influence and small businesses present in the community is neither new, nor surprising. Planned over sixty years ago, real estate developer Walter H. Leimert began this community with a purchase of 240 acres of land then known as Rancho Cienga O Pao de la Tijera in the 1920s. The architectural firm Olmsted and Olmsted, who created New York Cityís massive Central Park, developed the area into mixed residential dwellings, a commercial center, a school and a park plaza. In 1947 the Baldwin Hills Plaza, the first indoor shopping mall in Los Angeles and one of the earliest in the nation, was completed adjacent to the Leimert Park Village located on the opposing side of Crenshaw Boulevard. Today the Village is the oldest of five real estate divisions that have coexist as closely woven communities. Baldwin Hills Estates, Baldwin Hills, View Park and Windsor Hills are the four surrounding, mostly middle-class, larger, family styled residences, which are linked to Leimert Park Village by bounds of physical location, racial demographics and local cultural history. An irony of Leimert Parkís historic cultural and economic struggle as a site for Afro-centric business is that it is located among more affluent, predominately African-American neighborhoods. This is illustrated in an article entitled "The Crenshaw Area is L.A.ís Most Affluent Black Community, Yet it Suffers from Serious Decay," from the L.A. Times.

If not for the fact that their stunning views were obscured by smoke and helicopters during the riots, the neighborhoods in the hills west of Crenshaw Boulevard could be mistaken for Palos Verdes, the exclusive suburb at the other end of the boulevard. Except for the occasional multimillion-dollar mansion, homes in Baldwin Hills and View Park ranged in price from $350,000 to $650,000-bargains, say local appraisers, who estimate that the same properties would command $200,000 more on the mostly white westside.

Unlike many of the homes located in the adjacent hillside, which have undergone additions, Leimert Park maintains much of the original design. Including a distinct, low-level architecture that reflect Spanish and Mediterranean influences, and the park with a large water fountain which serve as the focal point of the Village.

It was not until the forties and fifties when African-Americans began to trickle into this community in recognizable numbers. Against protest from white Angelenos, African-Americans could be found in sparse numbers outside of the highly segregated eastside of Los Angeles, which arouse mostly by President Theodore Rooseveltís orders to desegregate the war time manufacturing plants in 1942. Until this time, Lynell George, author of No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels, describes the community life of African-Americans as one that tried in part to work within the limits the city fathers ascribed-law and medical practices, 24-hour general stores, and restaurants thrived within city blocks that were decreed their own. These residents built their neighborhoods up from the inside out, long before, out of long- simmering frustration they sought to tear them down. Restrictive covenants circumscribed the Westís great possibilities; segregated beaches, social clubs, and musicianís unions meant that Jim Crowís arms spread far enough to touch the Pacific as well.

The first socially mobile African-Americans who moved from the segregated community found better jobs in the then numerous factories and commercial venues, quiet, pepper tree-lined bungalow neighborhoods, quaint shopping areas and good schools in this area of South Central Los Angeles. By the 1960s dramatic demographic and economic shifts had occurred. African-Americans were increasing in large numbers, with whites, Asians and Latinos following respectively in smaller percentages.

What was once a prospering base region community now faced increasing social and economic isolation in the post war years up to the seventies and eighties. Loss of numerous manufacturing plants from the area, increased population, lack of resources from a lower tax base for public services, flight of more prosperous residents and negligence by the city are partially to blame . In the 1970s African-Americans became the dominate racial group with all others representing less that five percent each. In the 1980s and today in the 1990s the area is again experiencing a shift of racial and ethnic composition . Today various populations of Chicano/Latinos, and to a lesser extent Asians and Asian-Americans are migrating in as both business owners and residents. The1992 disturbances that hit many, primarily South Central areas through out the Los Angeles basin brought a surge of renewed interest from locals and city officials alike back to Leimert Park Village. Multifaceted efforts, ranging from grass-root neighborhood groups, merchant and urban planner collaboration and city targeted federally funded teams and project all have invested interest in revitalizing the area presently. Within all of these efforts, cooperation is sought and needed by the local merchants, residents, non-profit groups and city officials to ensure success of the businesses as they now exist and for the projects in progress or envisioned. Through the various interviews, cooperation was a main concern for the communityís vitality. Articulated also were issues of conflict. Struggling view points revolve around funding, inclusion in planning and the direction in which Leimert Park Village will be directed in the future as a residential community, and the only lasting authentic site of African-American cultural expression and entrepreneurship in the Los Angeles area.


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