Black on the Block

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.

Berler includes in that bad company Magic Johnson. The basketball icon--cum--entrepreneur, who fervently believes that black people have a right to a Nordstrom on the corner, has come, for better or worse, to represent a still-nascent black middle-class consumerist dream. It is a dream shared by those Crenshaw residents who regard a Starbucks or Krispy Kreme Donut in their neighborhood as not only places for better coffee and donuts, but freedom at last.

Decrying big-box and chain-store outlets, let alone Magic himself, may be intellectually sound, but it’s emotionally jarring. It is difficult for black people to de-lionize Magic, who partnered with Sony Pictures to build a movie multiplex in Crenshaw in ‘94 where there had been none. When his efforts to rehab the decrepit Santa Barbara Plaza shopping center were eventually thwarted, the failure was widely viewed as a noble one. Even the most ardent supporters of the Leimert arts scene tend to stop short of criticizing a man who, as a basketball player, was a cultural hero long before he expressed interest in developing Crenshaw, L.A.’s last definitive black neighborhood. To Berler, however, Magic is not a hero but a cynic -- another developer making profits for large corporations and hard-selling the community exactly what it doesn‘t need. “If you have these small businesses on Degnan that are dying, that can’t pay their rent, why isn‘t Magic giving money to them?” he asks reasonably. “The problem is that black people have too little to pass on, inheritance-wise. They need to own property. They’re sold a this myth that a big box like Target is a ‘catalyst’ for development and success, when in fact you know it‘s only a place to shop and where you go to get shit jobs.”

Berler is right, but the matter is frequently not as black and white as it seems: The eternal question for blacks living in the community is whether a flawed effort toward development is better than none at all. And architect Michael Anderson, a veteran of several Crenshaw development wars, thinks that the emotionally freighted notion of black development and cultural preservation actually obscures the real issue -- the chronic lack of a 9-to-5 job infrastructure that would naturally support Degnan and other small businesses. Anderson believes it would support bigger concerns like a Target, too. “If something’s not growing, it‘s dying,” he says of Crenshaw. “Everyone says this is about saving black culture, but really, black culture is dying here because it doesn’t have the income. The job and quality of life development that would have made Degnan secure should have been done a long time ago.”

I‘m certain Berler would have an unequivocal ally in the late Richard Fulton, better known in Leimert Park as Fifth Street Dick. Fulton ran a jazz coffeehouse on 43rd Place for seven years before he died of throat cancer in 2000. He was an ex--Skid Row bum who eventually realized an entrepreneurial pipe dream and became a cultural hero himself, but success never softened his views on economic development; blacks had to do it themselves, from the ground up, and he regarded Magic and the redevelopment activity stirring just across Crenshaw Boulevard, and elsewhere in the area, warily at best. Fulton saw his place not merely as a jazz spot but as a community think tank, a kind of ideological crossroads where people could detail their visions and map out a collective destiny over coffee and music and chess games. He had no use for politicians or big developers; to Fulton, black art and commerce were one and the same, and Leimert was unique because it was a rare synthesis of both.

But Leimert has always had other things, too, that were not so poetic. For the roughly 20 years Degnan Boulevard has been identified as the city’s premier black gathering place, it‘s also had strife -- strife that reflects the broader historical troubles of black communities everywhere and makes cohesion and collectivism feel like so much recycled fantasy. Merchants have often factionalized themselves and been inhibited by their own paranoia. The black city councilman in charge of the 8th district in the crucial post-riot years, Mark Ridley-Thomas, did little in Leimert except polarize the merchants with an imperious attitude; what should have been a centerpiece of his district was instead always merely another redevelopment problem.

The evolution after ’92 of the Leimert Park Community Development Corp., a quasi-governmental nonprofit meant to channel funds directly to the area and shore up its cultural-destination status, seemed a good idea but was slow in coming and plagued by suspicions that it was a puppet operation for Ridley-Thomas. The LPCDC has managed to implement various street and facade improvements, and more are on the way, but with half the targeted area likely to leave soon, they feel a bit superfluous.

Momentum crests but always recedes. Actress Marla Gibbs heartened everyone by putting her own money into building up the Vision Theater, the biggest piece of commercial property on the block that promised to be a real black theater and arts center. It was, until it was foreclosed on several years ago and left empty ever since. Gibbs and many others, from mid-list black celebrities like herself to Michael Berler, all convened at a rally two Saturdays ago in Leimert Park that proved beyond a doubt that the place is beloved, a fulcrum of black life -- and proved also that it hangs by a thread, that it has always done so.

I went to that rally, and it seemed as though everybody I‘ve met in the last dozen years on the job was there to lend support and to raise the visibility of the issue. On a preternaturally warm and sunny January day, good feeling nearly overtook the anxiety that had called everybody together in the first place. It was more like a mass family reunion in which people were so absorbed meeting and greeting that the recent deaths and deeper problems were not exactly minimized, but spontaneously set aside by the occasion. How could anything untoward happen with all of us there?

Then it occurred to me that black people have gotten very good at rallies like these, and at crisis response, which is partly a vestige of ’60s street activism and partly a genuine lack of knowing, in these atomized times, what we really can do next. One of the rally organizers, Torre Reese, says he got 600 signatures on a petition supporting a new artist‘s collective that will try to sustain the endangered Degnan tenants, especially the music-performance ones like World Stage and Ja-phyl’s. The collective, ambitiously called Artists for Justice and Liberation, is making property ownership its ultimate goal. How it plans to achieve it is not entirely clear.

It is still inspiring to remember how, in April ‘92, Leimert Park merchants banded together in the dark and the flames, and fought off ruin with fire hoses and the kind of steely vigilance that required sleeping in the street, or not sleeping at all. It is this brand of determination and survival instinct that Berler would love to channel into economic projects that aren’t at a crisis point. He is looking to form what he calls a “buying group,” a simple money consortium in the inner city that might purchase a Laundromat or a 99-cent store -- not as glamorous as an art gallery or jazz house, but a daily-life endeavor that could be a real catalyst for more widespread and enduring black ownership. Other plans include hiring himself out as a business consultant and reviving an idea he‘s had for a while to make Degnan a themed jazz district (parallel attempts in the past to designate Degnan as a cultural enclave -- making Leimert Park an official African Arts Village, renaming Degnan itself Malcolm X Boulevard -- have so far failed). To do less is not an option. “For me, there’s a moral equivalence between the current lack of ownership and murder,” says Berler. “You‘re withdrawing people’s hope and their ability to sustain themselves.” But, he adds, “We don‘t like to say these things aloud. We’re all like drug addicts. Either you hit bottom and confess the truth, or you wait for the next riot.”


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