By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Just when I thought it was officially impossible to convince anybody beyond my Rolodex that economic development in black Los Angeles is still hampered by the modern permutations of race, along comes Michael Berler. Berler is the unlikeliest of believers. He hardly looks the part: White, born and raised in upper-middle-class New York, Berler is, at 38, too young to have marched in the ‘60s, or to have had his world-view oriented by the civil rights movement. By his own admission he was until recently an archconservative who spread the gospel of tax cuts and trickle-down economics to anybody within earshot. Today Berler is a member of the Green Party and a pragmatic but eloquent spokesman for the cause of black entrepreneurship, which he says is the best and only antidote to the economic impoverishment that now seems endemic to places like Watts, South-Central and, to a different but no less damaging degree, Crenshaw and Leimert Park.
Berler is also among the chorus of voices that have lately swelled in protest against the possible closure of a number of storefronts along the southern end of Degnan Boulevard, which is Leimert’s economic crown jewel as well as a local -- and, increasingly, national -- cynosure of black culture and commerce. Nine Degnan merchants were warned last August by their new landlord, Russell Associates, that rent on their shops would be doubling this year; now the bill has come due, and most of the nine are making rather hasty plans to move, saying the exorbitant increase they can‘t afford is tantamount to eviction. (Degnan’s previous landlord, Jack Sidney, kept rates below market rate because he believed in the growth of the area.)
Berler‘s objection to the raising of Degnan’s rents is based less on ethnic appreciation than on what he knows about the logic of American commerce, which broadly dictates that prosperity is merit-based. Berler‘s epiphany was discovering just how unsound that logic is, particularly in black communities. “Desegregation backfired -- it killed black communities,” he says bluntly. “You can’t do anything alone. It‘s important to recycle black dollars, but this is something that everybody has done in the last couple of generations, except blacks. It can be done, it just hasn’t been done, and it certainly hasn‘t been encouraged.”
Like a lot of sources on black issues I’ve encountered over the years, Berler feels more like a co-conspirator than a contact. We met via e-mail when he responded to various pieces I‘d written on the woes of Crenshaw development; we met in person one afternoon in Inglewood at a black-owned coffeehouse -- any black-owned establishment, I realized that day, is Berler’s meeting place of choice. He is red-haired, genial and clean-cut; it is when he begins talking passionately but very precisely about black economics that it‘s clear he’s no crackpot or armchair agent of noblesse oblige. He believed the bootstrap tenets of the Republican Party for so long because he had seen nothing to refute it. “Reagan‘s tax cuts looked good on a chalkboard, nice and neat,” he says. “Simplicity is the best policy, right?” He went to law school and became steadily less cloistered; he met black people who effectively challenged his notions about the social order.
But Berler didn’t pursue law. He went into business, figuring it would better accommodate the creativity and maverick spirit he so admired in personal heroes like Ted Turner. Berler then settled into a successful family-owned computer-exporting business, “a typical white middle-class story,” he says.
His growing doubts about the fairness of the free market led him to ditch the Republican Party and support Clinton‘s presidency, with its race-friendly tenor and ostensible support for the little guy. But as he grew quickly disillusioned with the Democrats, too, doubts about where to cast his lot returned. Finally, during the November 1999 melee in Seattle, he realized with certainty that globalization was affecting not only the world, but long-suffering outposts like Crenshaw as well. His financially progressive conscience was pricked for good. He joined the Greens, and recently managed the campaign for lieutenant-governor candidate Donna Warren, the party’s first black woman to appear on the California slate with gubernatorial hopeful Peter Camejo. Two months ago, he sold his share of the family business to his brother to pursue the cause of inner-city development full time.
As a former businessman, Berler has a thick skin, and does not seem discouraged or deterred. His experience managing Warren‘s campaign helped him begin to amass the black contacts that he had never quite known how to cultivate, and he knows that as a white man, he’s an outsider, sometimes a threat by virtue of his color. He says he‘s usually cordially received if not always fully embraced.
Mostly, black people don’t quite know what to make of him. For credibility‘s sake he travels with books, statistics and figures that support his thesis that for most of its history, the black community was shut out of the commercial-property loop, and later had its own ignorance and lack of experience exploited by developers who have bought off politicians and assured black people that building a Target or a Wal-Mart is the surest way to recycle black dollars. (Wal-Mart, incidentally, is scheduled to open at the beleaguered Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza next week.) Berler believes that such big-box retailers are the biggest scourge of not only black communities, but of every American town that has watched its traditional economy go bust and had its jobs shipped overseas. Because of institutionalized racism, Berler says, black neighborhoods have been “running a trade deficit in their own back yards” longer than most, and best embody the ripe but financially compromised area where Wal-Mart and its ilk tend to set up shop. And the negative impact on local small business for which the Wal-Marts have become infamous is that much more devastating in black neighborhoods, where a critical mass of small businesses has not flourished since, well, the days of segregation. Berler says this is why Leimert Park is so important to sustain -- and why big-box retail proponents must be stopped.