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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. Whats 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. "Were 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 Crenshaws 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. Theres 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 cant 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 cant or wont address; I admire Alis 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.
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 doesnt. "Im hitting the panic button," he says. "Were 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 dont have a choice but to be out there and agitate. If youre not part of the solution, youre part of the problem."