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Crenshaw by Any Other Name

Illustration by Shino Arihara

Barely three months ago the City Council solemnly announced that South-Central would henceforth be known as South Los Angeles, a much-ado makeover that immediately reminded me of Kentucky Fried Chicken “becoming” KFC some years back — greasy stuff that’s been bad for generations gets a pared-down name suggesting the grease has been pared down, too. The people suffering from the South-Central stereotypes that hung over their neighborhoods for years like a permanent marine layer certainly had a right to the name change, even if it hardly changes the bad stuff that has mucked up that part of the city for decades — unemployment, under-education, underdevelopment of the local economy. But that impetus at least came from those living in the same streets being maligned by the outside world’s increasingly careless application of the umbrella ghetto name that is — excuse me, that was — South-Central.

Last month, however, none other than Nate Holden unilaterally decided he wanted to similarly ennoble Crenshaw Boulevard by renaming it for former Mayor Tom Bradley. Holden didn’t say that Crenshaw, which has become virtually synonymous with the black community in L.A., bears the same ghetto stigma of South-Central and would be better off calling itself something else. But that’s how it appeared to many black people, who instantly protested the move and passionately defended Crenshaw like the family name it has obviously become. Everyone from business owners to professional activists to plain folk criticized the proposed change as unnecessary at best, desecrating at worst; one man grumbled to the Los Angeles Times that cruising Tom Bradley Boulevard would hardly be the same thing as cruising the ’Shaw (the ghost of the poker-faced former mayor, who was also a longtime cop, would most likely enervate the outlaw spirit that has long characterized Crenshaw’s Sunday-night lowriders). But Holden dismissed such sentiment as self-defeating urban romanticism. “Look, in 20 years, blacks will look around and find they have nothing with their name on it,” Holden said with his inimitable bluntness during his last week of office. “Our contributions have never been properly recognized. This is the time.”

Yet one of many subtleties that Holden failed to grasp is that Crenshaw, unlike South-Central, is geographically specific and therefore meaningful in ways that few streets across this unwieldy city are. To begin with, Crenshaw is not just a street but a whole area of roughly five square miles that limns the last majority-black area in urban Los Angeles. To say one is “going to Crenshaw” generally means one is going to visit — besides actual family — the local headquarters of the NAACP, the Urban League, Leimert Park and its plethora of black-themed arts and culture outlets, Lula Washington’s newly furbished dance studio, Woody’s Barbeque. You name the black enterprise, Crenshaw’s got it.

It wasn’t always so, of course; early last century, when the boulevard was christened for a wealthy family named Crenshaw that lived in posh Lafayette Square, the area was as off-limits to blacks as everything else west of Main Street and east of Alameda. When demographics started changing for good in the 1950s, middle-class blacks steadily began claiming Crenshaw as their own. Today, Crenshaw is unique: It is dear to both the black bourgeoisie and the younger, rougher-edged hip-hop set that has valorized Crenshaw in song and video as the main artery pulsing through the West Coast’s most significant black ’hood. In an age in which blacks are strictly polarized by class, Crenshaw is both a dividing line and a rare point of cohesion. West of it lie the verdant hills of View Park and Ladera Heights, east of it lie the humbler but still stellar homes of Leimert and West Adams; the boulevard itself is lined with enough commercial burnouts and cautious promise to fuel the aspirations and authentications of all. It is difficult to imagine Tom Bradley, coalition maker that he was, being so encompassing.

 

Bradley himself is a big, but deliberately understated part of the problem. Holden claimed to have only wanted to rename L.A.’s black boulevard in honor of a revered and influential black figure, but while Bradley was all of those words, he was something less than the sum of them; he was not ethnocentric, but an ethnic centrist who was less inclined to call himself a black mayor than a mayor who happened to be black. He pioneered political cooperation that blunted racial edges of all kinds, which theoretically should have leveled playing fields from the Westside to Boyle Heights but actually meant that South-Central and its traditionally black population treaded water for years until it exploded in flames in ’92. No one blamed Bradley for that, but neither did anyone go around suggesting that one of the streets most afflicted by the riots be named after the man whose preeminent contribution to it was the erection of a mall at King Boulevard.

Protocol has meant that even the staunchest opponents of the Crenshaw name change support Tom Bradley’s legacy and his right to memorialization, but they point out very practically that there is an international airport and a downtown street, among other things, named for him already. The rather ironic message is that Bradley’s name is better suited to parts of town other than the black part that he grew up in, represented in the council himself and was expected to champion. The mall that opened in the late ’80s as the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was supposed to be a shiny symbol of Bradley’s community commitment, but it was late in coming, short on quality goods, pathologically unsure of its own market — a symbol less of commitment than of a telling ambiguity.

Torre Brannon Reese has more juice in a campaign to rename Crenshaw Malcolm X Boulevard, a pet cause since 1995. Reese runs a nonprofit called FAMLI (For Afrikan Mental Liberation International), which sponsors Leimert Park’s annual Malcolm X festival and most recently formed a collective called Artists for Justice and Liberation to save a row of financially endangered storefronts along Degnan Boulevard in Leimert. Like a lot of people, Reese was indignant when he heard about Holden’s attempt to fast-track the Bradley name change through City Hall, chiefly because it was being done without any community input. For people like Reese, who spend a lot of time circulating petitions and putting up fliers on telephone posts, this is a real affront. Possibly there’s a bit of sour grapes in agitating for Malcolm for years, only to get bigfooted in two weeks by Bradley — establishment wins again — but Reese insists his beef is about consensus. “We didn’t even get a call from Nate,” he says. “It’s not respectful of those who’ve had a public movement going for years.”

Not that Reese ever expected politicians to embrace the idea of upwardly mobile Crenshaw bearing the still-controversial legacy of Malcolm X, but it’s useful to remember that former 8th District Councilman Bob Farrell was very much in the middle of the effort to rename Santa Barbara Avenue Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard back in the ’80s. Farrell supports the Bradley renaming, which is both predictable and surprising — Farrell was always an establishment figure, but he also fought against political tides for the King renaming, a campaign that, unlike Bradley’s, was conducted from the grassroots up.

For now, the stretch of Crenshaw that runs from Wilshire to the Inglewood border will retain its name: Last Friday, the council unanimously agreed to send the proposal back to committee and solicit community input. Neighborhood groups were satisfied, not least because at the heart of the matter are two very big issues for black people — cultural sovereignty and power of identity. Questions of who gets to name us and why rattle us right down to the bones and reverberate through the ages, from slavery on through to the rap billboards routinely posted along Crenshaw that offer the recording industry’s latest takes on “real” black images, lest we forget what they are. I have actually lived more in fear of de-naming — waking up one morning to find that the southernmost part of Crenshaw, the part that winds up through Palos Verdes and gently disappears, has been changed to something entirely generic, like Sea Breeze Avenue — something to finally shake off the shackles of Crenshaw, a street that’s popularly black whether you paint it as bourgeoisie or Boyz N the Hood, and therefore unfit for upscale or even middle-scale South Bay consumption. That would still leave Crenshaw to us, but there would be less of it overall, less of what makes it as grand and diverse a thoroughfare as Wilshire or Figueroa or Sepulveda. We may fight over a street considered ours, but even if Malcolm triumphs in the end, victory really depends on Crenshaw belonging to everyone.


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