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
But many neighborhoods where the Times distributes are now at least as Latino as they are black. That has prompted a few tentative experiments in recent years — a column offering tips on Spanish pronunciation and the rudiments of Latino history, very occasional front-page stories on Latino immigration and its effect on politics and culture. These may not seem like big developments, but they are territorial and ideological concessions that black papers elsewhere in the country have not had to consider making. (The Sentinel, for its part, has not made them.) Many people see such concessions as compromising whatever coherent black identity is left in L.A., although no one is clear on how to preserve it. The Times regularly discusses changing its name and scrapping "Watts" altogether, though Polk is wary of such a move. "We have an established rep that we’re very proud of. We have national advertisers for whom the name change would be radical," she says. "We don’t want an appearance that we’re turning our back on our roots or our mission."
It is jarring to realize that blacks may be holding on by the breadth of a name. The irony is that despite shrinking numbers, black people live very vividly, albeit sordidly, in L.A.’s popular imagination — gangsta rap and Rodney King have come to define the city as much as the Beach Boys defined the Southern California Zeitgeist (whitegeist, really) of the ’60s. But where the Beach Boys extolled L.A. at its most blue-sky idyllic, King and the boyz reflect the dregs of its failed promise. Black neighborhoods in the ’90s are a painful symbol of everything that has gone wrong — despite the fact that Crenshaw is also home to the largest collection of affluent black neighborhoods in the West. This dichotomy testifies uneasily to the fact that while many blacks have prospered, many more have not, that the entrenchment of the more fortunate hasn’t mitigated the slide of the less so. And so the Crenshaw District stands divided, with the modernized Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza serving as a kind of Berlin Wall where the two populations occasionally intersect in a food court or shoe store, but later retreat to their respective north-south camps.
The fruits of the great black Southern and Midwest migration that peaked in the ’30s and ’40s, driven by a common desire to escape segregation for good and lay claim to California living, have been strange indeed. Black flight from increased crime and sharply decreased job opportunities has scattered the original settlers, to say nothing of their collective dream; blacks have diffused while the problems of decay have congealed into a crisis that too few people anywhere are regularly addressing. Hell, Crenshaw is still anxiously trying to involve the moneyed "hill" people — homeowners in Baldwin and Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights and Leimert Park — in their own economy.
But then it’s no secret that black Angelenos, like Angelenos at large, have generally been less concerned with activism than with securing the inalienable right to live in really nice places. In her recently anthologized piece on black L.A. history, "A City Called Heaven," writer Susan Anderson points out that in the 1940s, Los Angeles was the nation’s leading center for legal challenges to restrictive housing covenants. Black leadership here has always kept to very middle-class concerns, and Anderson suggests that the venerable Tom Bradley and his ilk largely forsook the issues of poverty and inequitable wealth distribution for gains in political representation and increased social mobility. Leadership got what it wanted, at a cost. "Poverty as an issue for modern black leadership," Anderson writes, "has been utterly without glamour." It is particularly without glamour — indeed, it is almost an affront — to those whose greatest aspiration is to live north of Slauson Avenue, in the heavenly reaches of upper Ladera.
Self-made activist Najee Ali, whose guiding lights include Geronimo Pratt and Kwame Ture, says the first step toward black recovery is a very public exercise in self-esteem. He is trying to persuade people to officially recognize Crenshaw as a black economic, social and cultural hub that is worth sustaining for future generations. For the last year Ali has spearheaded a campaign to have Leimert Park Village (with its crown jewel, Degnan Boulevard) renamed African American Village. It is the latest in a fitful series of such campaigns that had an apotheosis with the renaming of Santa Barbara Avenue as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1982. Following the ’92 riots, a few Crenshaw activists began calling for a designation of the whole Crenshaw District as African Village, à la Chinatown and Little Tokyo, though the idea never gained popular momentum. Whether it will now, with the black population at its most fragmented and least civically active, seems doubtful; the King Boulevard campaign, even with Bradley in office, a favorable political climate and mainstream support, took many years to push through. (Conversely, it took astoundingly little time for the city of Redondo Beach to re-christen its stretch of Compton Avenue, which runs west from Crenshaw to the beach, Marine Avenue in 1990. The good citizens there apparently felt a complex coming on and administered some first aid before their humbler South Bay brethren — Inglewood, Hawthorne, Compton — even knew that a problem existed. Those of us who found ourselves driving south down Crenshaw, probably headed to the Del Amo mall, realized at some point past Artesia that Compton Avenue had neatly vanished, and felt a chill. What’s next?)