By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Michael Anderson is an architect and developer who has lived under a great gray cloud of disappointment ever since I‘ve known him. We met in 1993, shortly after the riots, when I was a green reporter covering the Crenshaw district and he was 34 and brimming with ideas about how to overhaul commercially stunted Crenshaw, an area as famous for its black middle class as it is for having neighborhoods hardest hit by the unrest. Blocks from the lovely Mediterranean-style homes in View Park and Windsor Hills were empty lots, 99-cent-store knockoffs, and enough wig and hair-weave shops to service the entire rap-video industry for the rest of the millennium. The unflattering contrast had been around for years, but the riots exposed it anew, to a global audience of millions. The time to act in a big way seemed obvious, and Anderson was determined to help forge the long-missing link between Crenshaw’s healthy suburban potential and its anemic urban reality; he began busily shopping around his ambitious blueprints for revitalization to local government, community groups, other developers -- anybody who‘d listen. It’s been a rough 10 years, to say the least.
Today Anderson is 43 and has officially given up the effort. He‘s gone to work for a private architectural firm on the Westside, but Crenshaw and inner-city revitalization still burns -- like a wound, and like a fiery muse -- at the core of his imagination. He is thoroughly convinced that things are supposed to be different, and he is thoroughly chagrined that they are not. He has put aside the blueprints, but not the idea that black L.A. can not only reclaim what it once had, but prosper; he believes this even as he rages regularly at a landscape that is too little changed for his taste.
”It’s just not beautiful out there,“ he says with real consternation. ”Everybody is still reactive about the riots. After all this time there‘s still no plan, no follow-up.“ He did get six new houses built on Vernon Avenue near Crenshaw, one of the several projects he touted and the only one that actually got done. He dismisses it as the least important. ”That’s not ambition,“ he says. ”That doesn‘t modernize the community. Anything less than modernizing is a Band-Aid.“ When he built the houses and lived in one of them, he says, ”I didn’t invite people after dark. When I drive through South-Central, I‘ve still got to put on my armor. It’s sad to say, but that‘s where we still are.“
And that’s where many of us have been for too long. I tell Anderson‘s story not as a plug for his blueprints -- they may be entirely unworkable, as far as I know -- but as an extended introduction to the grave doubts about progress harbored by many black people, myself included, as riot-anniversary season descends and the cameras and microphones and special reports return to the scene of the crime of the century (sorry, O.J.). The media will hardly expect to find the kinds of upgrades Anderson and like-minded others were hoping for; the cameras are most likely to zoom in on the somber faces of local politicians, on the rebuilds and new Rite Aids and Auto Zones, on a relatively quiescent Florence and Normandie, and call it victorious. But this is exactly what those of us still waiting for dramatic improvements are afraid of -- popular reaffirmation that the scale of expectations for Crenshaw and its ilk is so modest, virtually nothing has to improve in order to declare that things are getting better. Low-to-zero expectations for real change are what we most needed to change in ’92; we are still cheering baby steps when we should be decrying them as wholly inadequate to the journey at hand. We risk sounding dismissive of laudable post-riot efforts that are still going strong -- First AME Church‘s Renaissance program, for instance, which incubates small businesses among several other things -- but it’s a risk more of us are going to have to assume if we want to break the economic status quo and have something different to say, and to see, in 2012.
Before I go any further into what the optimist camp would call a breach, let‘s review some of what has happened in the last decade: Magic Johnson built some movie theaters on the grounds of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, thereby reviving it. He also purchased the Ladera Center and opened up a Starbucks and a TGI Friday’s restaurant. Keyshawn Johnson got into the celebrity-developer act and threw his money behind a sprawling shopping center at Slauson and Western called Chesterfield Square, which opened earlier this year; it‘s anchored by a Home Depot and includes another Magic Johnson Starbucks. Crenshaw Boulevard is undergoing some extensive public-works improvements from the Inglewood border to Wilshire. Most of the burned-out lots have been filled with something. A retail complex went up in Leimert Park last year that contains a coffeehouse, a restaurant and a live theater. Here is what else happened, or didn’t: The Santa Barbara Plaza, adjacent to the Crenshaw mall and considerably bigger, is still fallow after several black businesses that had spent decades waiting for redevelopment languished and went belly-up (8th District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas got into a political squabble with Johnson, whose company was slated to develop the plaza but did not). The Vision Theater complex in Leimert Park, once owned by actress Marla Gibbs and a symbol of Crenshaw‘s renowned cultural vitality, was partly razed last year to build a parking lot. Money for a facade program coordinated several years a ago to improve storefronts along Crenshaw has yet to be disbursed.