By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Since focusing on black economic development, Johnson has reset an agenda that hadn't been set in decades. His growing enterprises here and across the country are forcing discussions about slow growth vs. no growth that had never before been necessary. After putting away the pro-basketball jones for good in 1996, he turned his attentions fully to business ventures, and before anyone really knew what was happening he swooped downcourt and scored a number of deals that alone promise to change the long-neglected face of South L.A.: a $150 million commitment from CalPERS, the state's largest pension fund, for the purchase of Ladera Center and redevelopment of the Santa Barbara Plaza; first-of-a-kind partnerships with Starbucks and TGI Fridays; and, with fellow celebs Jheryl Busby and Janet Jackson, the purchase of Founders National Bank, the sole black-owned bank in the West.
Johnson sees his inner-city developments, the ones charting territory so new there's no real name for it yet, as something much bigger than himself. Not as big as God, but spiritual insofar as business undertakings in minority areas can be, sometimes must be -- leaps of faith and all that. "You know, if I'd listened to everybody's advice, there'd still be no movie theaters in the hood," he says almost impatiently. "But if we [black people] don't do it, who's gonna do it? We'll be complaining about the same thing forever. It ismy responsibility, not only to teach young people what's possible, but to make older people proud, too. So many people have come up to me and said, 'We're so proud to have this place.'" He suddenly grins full strength, savoring his victory and the fact that he is able to share it with other folk. "I lovegoing to my theater on Friday or Saturday. Don't have a problem in the theater with people recognizing me, but when I go to the concession stand -- whooo, boy!"
MAGIC JOHNSON IS GIVING INNER-city redevelopment the one thing it never figured to have: celebrity. It's something he is more than willing to employ for the greater good, though Magic is a bit of a stranger to the man who's always called himself Earvin. By his admission, the two personas have converged at points in the past, though now they're separated for the purposes of work. One is a brand name, the other is the product itself; both are crucial to the success of Johnson Enterprises. "When I walk in the door to do business with people, I'm Magic," Johnson explains. "But when I finish business, they're calling me Earvin."
In the hood, the name Earvin registers blank looks, but "Magic" invokes everything good and heroic and possible: championship basketball, sportsmanship, modesty, belief in God, bold new enterprise, recycling dollars. Though Johnson frequently cites his ties to the Crenshaw district -- he and his wife, Cookie, belong to West Angeles Church; he is a regular client of a neighborhood barber -- his presence, in the manner of most celebrities, is more broadcast than actual. Yet his business concerns make him real enough to locals, who say that Johnson's abiding interest in bringing retail amenities -- lattes, business suits -- to the area more than qualifies him as a flesh-and-blood brother. He is closer to the people than traditional black organization heads and politicos, who have proved better at delivering uplifting speeches and doling out awards from behind podiums than at facilitating change.
Johnson's skirmish last summer with 8th District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas over the development of the Santa Barbara Plaza perfectly illustrated the point: Ridley-Thomas' chronic resistance to development and his political maneuvering in the plaza deal -- threatening to kill it because Johnson backed a stadium bid in Carson instead of his own bid to rebuild the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- stood in unflattering contrast to Johnson's just-do-it exhortations. The standoff solidified Johnson's image as a community champion who was being wronged by a bureaucracy that had been indifferent and ineffective for so long that it knew no other way to be. Following critical media coverage and public outcry, Ridley-Thomas grudgingly backed down.
The incident baptized Johnson in fire, and he recalls the wrath of Ridley-Thomas, a longtime friend, soberly but with lingering bewilderment. "I've always supported Mark, and he supported me on the theaters," he says. "But the city took us through a longprocess on this one. Mark took it personal, which is too bad. He called me up at night really upset [after reading about Johnson's position on the Coliseum in an L.A. Business Journal article], threatening to pull the permits on the expansion of the theaters, which was already under way. He was like, 'I'll show you who's in charge around here!'" Johnson shakes his head. "My partners asked me what I wanted to do. I said, 'Man, I'm ready to walk.' We were going to leave the L.A. thing alone. We were getting a lot of deals coming at us, we didn't have to go looking." But then the bad press hit, and Ridley-Thomas was suddenly not so anxious to have Johnson Development Corp. bow out and leave him in public-relations quicksand. JDC still has the project, and though the pace of progress has been snail-like, corporation officials expect the deal to pass the City Council in the next month.
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