Lost Soul 

A lament for black Los Angeles

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998

Page 4 of 8

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?)

Ali, 34, is an ex-convict and gang member who knows something about turf battles, and he hopes to lend this one a tough edge. "We’re trying to establish territory, draw a line in the sand," he says. But his African American Village campaign is really not as militant as it sounds; it is a manifestation of a larger wish to persuade Crenshaw’s middle class to stay, please. History is against it. L.A.’s black population, like most other immigrant populations throughout the city, has been kinetic: As it prospers, it moves. The difference with blacks is that moving has rotted out a social infrastructure and replaced it with nothing. Ali says it is therefore absolutely necessary to preserve the infrastructure that is left. He argues — as if there really is an argument — that people must see that "Crenshaw is our last frontier, our last stand. There’s not a place like this anywhere in L.A. It has to hold. We have to convince homeowners not to do black flight, by any means necessary. We can’t hold them legally, but we can shame them into staying."

That sounds improbable, more so because Ali has assigned himself many other crusades. In fact, he assigns one almost weekly. His Project Islamic HOPE, which started out with the single mandate of feeding the homeless, functions today as a kind of clearinghouse for a growing number of black-related causes, from petitioning for justice for 9-year-old rape-murder victim Sherrice Iverson to shutting down a proposed Crenshaw porn shop to protesting black sexual stereotypes in films like How To Be a Player, which Ali believes are partially responsible for the high rate of black teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS. These are issues that sizable black organizations can’t or won’t address; I admire Ali’s willingness to stick his fingers into as many holes in the dike as possible, but I wonder if he is overreaching or spreading himself too thin to be taken seriously on any point on this crisis continuum.

Related Stories

  • Kids Who Kill 4

    In August 1988, Jasmine, 16, was two years into gang life in Compton when she shot down another girl. She was sentenced to life in prison and placed with hardened adults at the California Institute for Women. For a few harrowing days, she even ended up on Death Row. Jasmine...
  • Repo Man Murdered After Legally Towing a Car, L.A. Deputies Say 5

    You've seen repo men and women on reality television, and even though the scenarios sometimes seem set up, you get the picture: This is a dangerous job. One L.A.-area repo man was murdered yesterday after he hooked up a car and drove away in his tow truck, only to be...
  • Eyes on Compton 4

    It was a bold and, some critics say, invasive move. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department spied on the residents of Compton by flying a plane over the 10-square-mile city for 6 hours a day for 9 days, videotaping everything on the ground. See also: License Plate Recognition Logs Our Lives Long...
  • Big-Money Pimps

    A trio of local pimps forced women to work the streets from San Diego to Las Vegas and beyond, cops say, and they allegedly made millions doing so. But now 31-year-old Robert Walker, 34-year-old Daniel Gunther, and 34-year-old David Sheffey, who called their crew the Compton Division, are behind bars, says...
  • Game of Drones: How LAPD Got Seattle's Rejects 8

    When a Seattle Police Department commander boarded a commercial jet to L.A. three weeks ago, below him in the cargo hold were two large packages he'd checked as baggage — two miniature, 3-foot-long, camera-equipped helicopters, destined for the LAPD. It had been almost a year since the two 3.5-pound Draganflyer...

Ali says no. He sees all his efforts as spokes on a single wheel — the preservation and reinforcement of the black community. This is the wheel on which everything turns, or doesn’t. "I’m hitting the panic button," he says. "We’re part of the reason the demographics are shifting — by moving out and not staying, by not investing in each other and selling to each other. I would love to have a wife and kids, to kick back and watch TV, but I don’t have a choice but to be out there and agitate. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem."

Related Content

Now Trending

  • Woman Fatally Struck by Vehicle at Burning Man

    A woman was fatally struck by a vehicle at Burning Man today, organizers said. The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office in Nevada identified the deceased as 29-year-old Alicia Louise Cipicchio of Jackson, Wyoming. Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham said she fell under a bus or "large vehicle" that was carrying participants early today. See...
  • 10 Things to Do Before Summer Ends in L.A.

    Autumn in L.A. is nothing to get depressed about. The weather's still gorgeous; the sun still shines. We'll enjoy plenty more 80 degree days as August turns to September. And yet ... you can feel the days getting shorter, the nights getting cool. There's a bittersweet note in the morning...
  • Burning Man Shut Down Due to Weather

    The annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nevada was shut down today after light overnight rains left the area known as the Playa flooded and muddy, officials said. Organizers advised festival-goers heading to the annual event to postpone their arrival until at least midday tomorrow. Burning Man was providing...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets