By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In 1994, architect and developer Michael Anderson felt on the verge of realizing an ambitious project he had been shopping around for months: a five-story office building that would have brought hundreds of government employees to the Crenshaw area and provided its economy with a badly needed shot in the arm. Anderson had collected many letters of support from community leaders and politicians, and had gotten vocal support from Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
But at a Crenshaw meeting of the board of commissioners of the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency's (CRA), when Anderson prepared to ask the board for public aid, something odd happened: Ridley-Thomas suddenly left the room and three commissioners followed suit. Anderson was then informed his project could not be addressed because the quorum had been broken. After securing $14 million in funding and sinking $175,000 of his company's money into making the proposal work, Anderson was left to watch Ridley-Thomas stand him up. "This is something the community really needed. I got everybody on board this project, including Ted Kennedy," says Anderson bitterly. "But I couldn't get Mark."
It is a common complaint in the Crenshaw district. A growing number of people looking to turn the area around say they have been repeatedly disappointed by a councilman who, despite presenting himself as a man of the people, seems pathologically indifferent to their concerns. They accuse him of being merely another politician on a power trip, motivated largely by a compulsive need to control everything that goes on in his district. And while they acknowledge that the councilman once seemed to be paving the way for large-scale projects - by lobbying successfully for Crenshaw's inclusion in his South-Central district, then by expanding redevelopment zones there after the riots - they feel that little of that promise has been filled. "He doesn't do what's good for the community because he spends most of the time cultivating outside interests, namely the Coliseum [football stadium]," says John Caldwell, a Crenshaw-area attorney who represents the Leimert Park Merchants Assn. "He stays silent. He's not with the community at a time when it desperately needs him."
At the dawn of his political career, Ridley-Thomas was regarded as a great black hope, lionized on the cover of the now-defunct L.A. Reader as a principled urban warrior, a politician schooled in civil rights activism but focused on the future, an elected official who would be able to finally bridge the growing gap between politics and populism and, through sheer force of will, speed revitalization in the city's steadily eroding black community. Today, despite local plaudits for his neighborhood Empowerment Congresses, Ridley-Thomas is regarded by many constituents as quite the opposite - temperamental, often vindictive and too ready to invoke the wishes of community to mask his own motives. Some are even saying they were better served when, before re-districting, the Crenshaw district was represented by 6th District Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. "When Ruth Galanter was in office, her style was, 'Give the people what they want,'" says one public official who asked not to be named. "With Mark, it's more like, 'I'm going to give the people what it is I've decided they want.'"
Developer Anderson says he has been burned more than once. A $600,000 revitalization plan now being touted by the city for Leimert Park is virtually identical to one proposed five years ago by Anderson, down to the funding source. But in the city's version, Anderson is not involved. Another one of his projects, a palm-tree beautification of Crenshaw Boulevard, resurfaced with a different architect in place. The Ladera Heights-based architect said the betrayals are especially galling because "you have to work three times as hard in the black community to get things done, and then you get burned. I thought Mark was serious about things. He created all these opportunities for developers [after '92], and then nothing happened."
Development advocates agree that Ridley-Thomas' obsession with his own, often acutely personal, agenda has contributed to the snail's pace of economic progress in Crenshaw; the recent furor reported by the Weekly over the councilman's attempt to thwart development in the Santa Barbara Plaza because of a tiff with plaza developer Magic Johnson illustrates the point. (Ridley-Thomas passed an ambiguously worded motion in council Tuesday to swiftly and "successfully" conclude negotiations between Johnson Development and the CRA. A deal was finalized that afternoon, and development is moving forward.) Crenshaw is the 8th District's best hope for rapid revitalization, but with Ridley-Thomas at the helm, many people doubt that will happen.
Ridley-Thomas himself is sanguine about the criticism and maintains that his office has in fact done much development during his tenure. And he has unquestionably brought development into the area in the form of supermarkets, auto-parts shops, affordable housing complexes. But critics note that this is not the kind of development that generates core jobs and in turn stimulates the local economy. When asked specifically about projects like Anderson's, Ridley-Thomas shrugs and says that everyone in South-Central, perhaps understandably, wants everything to happen now. "Hey, we're out here doing it," he says. "Development is tough. Not everybody is going to be happy with what goes on. That's the nature of the business. We got a Shoe Warehouse [on Crenshaw] where there used to be a liquor store. You may have problems with the warehouse, but you have to say it's a hell of an improvement over what was there."