Los Angeles is wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high . . . Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities.
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1913
[Black neighborhoods] are a kind of forgotten archipelago in the garish basin of the region.
Robert Kirsch, 1965
As a kid growing up in the west end of what would come to be known as South-Central Los Angeles, my world was limned in black. The prevalence of black people in my neighborhood was not, as it tends to be today, a cause for alarm or a sign of inevitable social decay. Blackness simply encompassed everything best friends, spring carnivals at the local Catholic school, the butcher at the meat counter, the summer playground director with watchful eyes and a whistle slung around her neck. I was raised in the very justified belief that blacks were as self-sustaining as anyone, that whatever could not be had within a three-mile radius of my house was some extravagance probably not worth too much thought anyway. My world was ordered and comfortable, though varied enough in its self-containment never to make me feel contained: I played jacks on the sidewalk, shot basketball in the backyard, went to the playground when I was bored, spent long afternoons in one of several neighborhood libraries.
I think the perspective of my neighborhood started changing with the proliferation of indoor malls in the mid-70s, when I was in junior high school. Malls were located in almost exclusively suburban areas that were almost exclusively populated by whites, and my friends and I had to plan daylong bus trips to get to them. I liked going out to Del Amo or Fox Hills, but was vaguely resentful that I had to invest so much time and cover so much ground just to acquire a Hot Dog on a Stick. But everybody in the neighborhood talked rapturously about the malls, about the things that could be had there, and I swiftly came to understand that these things could not be had here, that they might never be had here, and what was once a world of plenty seemed more and more like a place of deprivation still home and the locus of family, but a point that would stay fixed and musty as the world around it changed with abandon.
As it turns out, if black neighborhoods in L.A. had simply remained the same, it would have been a vast improvement over what actually did happen: a steady decline that left areas like my old neighborhood pockmarked with empty lots and façades where sturdy businesses used to be. The neighborhood feels not lived in, but lived out. When I drive through the commercial districts there and elsewhere in Central L.A. everything feels impermanent, poised for flight, like a diner sitting at a restaurant eating a meal but strategically positioned near the back door, ready to beat it at the first sign of trouble. Yet the greatest loss has not been stores or businesses, but people; the greatest catastrophe has been the exodus from a place where I once assumed everybody wanted to stay, a thinning of the bones in our body politic that do not seem to be significantly re-forming in all those places we went Palmdale, Moreno Valley, Riverside. Weakened by this, by rapidly changing demographics and chronically discordant leadership, the citys black neighborhoods are struggling to define, or redefine, an identity as the millennium draws to a close. Yet with our mass no longer critical was it ever? and not likely ever to be again, I wonder how, or if, black L.A. will survive.
The seven-square-mile Crenshaw District is the only predominantly black area of Los Angeles left, and the strongest argument against cultural annihilation. The storefront churches, screen-door restaurants and itinerant nightclubs may be weary, but theyre still standing, and the area is the base of operations for a hefty percentage of black businesses and institutions: the African American Cultural Center, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, Founders National Bank, the Museum in Black, the Black Employees Association, Fifth Street Dicks Jazz Coffeehouse.
Yet for all its activity, Crenshaw has the feel of an island, a bunker. Lifetime resident and activist Valerie Shaw notes that the citys entire black infrastructure now lies between the 10 freeway, Florence Avenue, Western Ave nue and La Cienega. "There is a tremendous sense of loss in the black community a loss of political status, loss of neighborhoods, loss of history," she says. "What people are dealing with is the breaking of a continuum."