By Michael Goldstein
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By LA Weekly
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Still, there is an inherent tension in committing to both social ideology -- uplifting black neighborhoods -- and the most efficient business practices possible; Johnson Development has found itself caught up more than once in a crossfire. Owners of Eso Won Books, one of the few thriving small businesses in the Crenshaw area, publicly charged the company with hypocrisy after it decided not to grant the bookstore a lease in its newly purchased Ladera Center. Last spring, the theaters were targeted in a protest by a group called Project Islamic HOPE for showing How To Be a Player, which the group felt exacerbated black sexual stereotypes. (Theater officials went ahead and showed the film, but have since exercised some quality control, announcing last November that Magic Johnson Theatres would notbe showing Belly, a black gangster saga, because of its "overwhelmingly negative and violent depictions of African-Americans" and its "potential to create disruptive situations for our theaters' patrons and employees.") And some feathers have been permanently ruffled over the strict policy of not allowing caps or gang colors in the theaters, a measure designed to deter would-be troublemakers. "I wear baggy pants, a cap, but I'm a teacher and a 52-year-old grandmother -- how the fuck am I going to be a gang member?" snaps Yvonne Hutchinson, a longtime Leimert Park resident who was rebuffed by security on her first visit to the theaters because she wouldn't take off her cap. "That's not respectful. You're in the black community opening a business, saying you're for the community, but you have this assumption right off of something very negative. It's a misguided philosophy that plays into the same old stereotypes that all black people are potentially dangerous. Why is it I can go into any theater in Westwood and nobody asks me to take off my cap?" (The theaters have relaxed the rule over the years and now routinely make exceptions for women.)
Others say that Johnson, for all his pro-community speeches, is in fact not investing much of his own money and is merely fronting for the real profiteers -- big corporations like Starbucks and Sony. But supporters dismiss such perceptions as so much urban paranoia, the result of years of negligence and fractured promises. "This whole idea that Earvin is not serious, that he's dabbling, really gets under my skin," says his friend Eric Holoman. "In the business world, nobody sinks in all their money on a project. You get partners. Even if he wasn't investing any of his money, he doesn't have to spend his time trying to get other people to invest theirs. Of course there are things at stake -- if this thing doesn't work, Earvin loses, too. But if it works, everybody wins."
THE NOTION OF BLACK CAPITALISM -- wealthy blacks investing in black communities and independently creating a sort of trickle-down economy in the hood -- was controversial long before Johnson gave it fresh currency. Though a simple idea advanced by black and white leaders alike, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Richard Nixon, it is criticized as a remedy for urban ills because it implies that society at large is ultimately not responsible for the troubled state of its black citizenry. Neither do all moneyed black folk believe that even massive investment by their ranks in shopping centers and the like will come close to rectifying generations of institutionalized racism and miseducation, as Johnson's confrere Charles Barkley has argued. (Of course, such thinking neatly enables blacks like Barkley to go about buying BMWs with nary a twinge of conscience -- conspicuous consumption is, after all, the American way, and black folks in many ways are the most patriotic Americans of all.) Yet Johnson appears to be having some measure of influence: At his urging, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal recently decided to become a partner in the Carson football-stadium project along with Johnson, Michael Ovitz and a host of other well-heeled celebrities. "When I first met Magic Johnson, before he had even said hi to me, he told me all this fame and getting your picture taken stuff is fine, but you need to start owning things," O'Neal told the Los Angeles Times. "As a 17- and 18-year-old kid, I didn't know what he was talking about at the time, but now I do realize what he was saying."
Johnson's pastor says that his critics, whether they mean to or not, are also holding Johnson disproportionately responsible for "giving back," which has become a buzz phrase among the black middle class but has never been practically understood. "This is not a cross I lay only on the shoulders of the very rich," says Bishop Charles Blake, who worked behind the scenes to help resolve the Santa Barbara Plaza conflict in Johnson's favor. "If I don't do the things with my own money that I should be doing, I shouldn't expect others to carry the rest of the load for me."
Even if Johnson realizes all of his development dreams -- even if he does complete the plaza in record time and start on the east side of Crenshaw -- it remains to be seen if residents will keep up their end of a tacit bargain and shop in the neighborhood. Middle-class consumers in Central L.A. have grown so accustomed to going elsewhere for quality goods that they might not be persuaded to come back to where they never went in the first place, even if it is in their own back yard. Mall magnate Alexander Haagen, who redeveloped the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza as a grand urban experiment in 1988, couldn't do it (though locals always complained that his company dropped the ball on leasing tony stores); whether Johnson can is literally the million-dollar question. Macy's recent, very unceremonious departure from the mall doesn't bode well.
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