Ten Years and a Cloud of Dust
Michael Anderson is an architect and developer who has lived under a great gray cloud of disappointment ever since Ive 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 Crenshaws 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 whod listen. Its been a rough 10 years, to say the least.
Today Anderson is 43 and has officially given up the effort. Hes 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.
Its just not beautiful out there, he says with real consternation. Everybody is still reactive about the riots. After all this time theres 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. Thats not ambition, he says. That doesnt 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 didnt invite people after dark. When I drive through South-Central, Ive still got to put on my armor. Its sad to say, but thats where we still are.
And thats where many of us have been for too long. I tell Andersons 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 Churchs Renaissance program, for instance, which incubates small businesses among several other things -- but its 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.
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Before I go any further into what the optimist camp would call a breach, lets 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 Fridays 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; its 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 didnt: 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 Crenshaws 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.
The list of bureaucratic slights, missteps and blind spots is much too lengthy to put down here, and while no one thing is responsible for institutional neglect, collectively they are the dragon that continually slays any effort to re-configure the scope and nature of change in the inner city. Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., cites exorbitant rebuilding costs and ongoing political turf wars as two of the biggest impediments. Groups like FAME Renaissance are quietly going about the business of improvements, but what you really need are good-quality jobs, higher-than-minimum-wage, that will automatically attract retail and other amenities, he says. The small efforts are not spectacular, but its like the old adage about football, three yards and a cloud of dust. It aint it, but maybe itll get the job done.
While 1992 ushered in the era of multiculturalism and racial-cooperation think tanks, it is useful to remember that black malcontent formed the wide, deep bottom of the towering scrapheap of urban problems the riots became in the public minds eye. But the heap, piled with everything from distraught Korean merchants to a conveniently apathetic LAPD, easily obscured the initial reality of the first and most embittered voices in the riots -- black people, especially young men, who were poor or underemployed or both, who had been that way a long time and claimed Rodney King among their disaffected ranks.
Dwayne Wyatt was not one of those first voices, but he may be the next generations. He doesnt seem a likely candidate for new blood: Wyatt is 50 and an associate planner in the citys planning department, one bureaucracy among many that is responsible, but not really accountable, for improving the quality of life in L.A. neighborhoods. Assigned to the Crenshaw area, Wyatt was part of a post-riot group formed within the department called the SoutheastSouth-Central Task Force; like Anderson, he assumed the riots would crystallize serious efforts to make black neighborhoods and the inner city better, even superior, places to live. After 10 years, Wyatt has grown so frustrated with the departments inattention to Crenshaw and surrounding areas he is mounting a campaign with residents and other community supporters to do something about it -- an unusual step for a civil servant employed by a massive government outfit like L.A.s. Wyatt is as genial as they come, but says he has no choice. I cant do my job, he says. The department has this old 1950s mentality of sitting behind desks and doing zoning. Were supposed to be involved in things like streetscapes and urban design, but in reality were land cops, granting permission to developers who need conditional-use permits.
Those developers, needless to say, are generally not in Central L.A., which means the concerted efforts of the Planning Department generally arent either. Wyatt also complains the department has far too few minority planners, and those few exercise little real power. But heres the rub: The folks who actually did wield clout on the City Council -- namely Nate Holden, Rita Walters and Ridley-Thomas -- proved not to be the agitating forces hed hoped for. Everything is typically market-driven, says Wyatt. Theres no real system of monitoring what happens (in Central L.A.). So the black politicians really end up being not advocates but caretakers. Placeholders.
Wyatt and I are in his car driving in and around Crenshaw and South Los Angeles, touring the very neglect hes talking about. Not merely the cracked sidewalks and drab storefronts, but the million details that make neighborhoods unlivable, or at least look that way. Wyatts biggest beef to that end is the ubiquitous window bars and security gates that front everything from auto-repair shops to places of worship. Fortress L.A., he says, shaking his head as we roll east along Florence from Van Ness. You know something? They dont have to be here. Security doesnt have to be like this. Businesses on the Westside need security, too, but you wont see all these bars. Wyatt jokes rather dispiritedly that hes become known at work as the fence guy because he routinely challenges co-workers to find alternatives to the perimeter fences that have become conventional planning wisdom in the inner city. I say, Get rid of the fence, he says, and they all look at me like Im crazy.
Wyatt may in fact be crazy, as Anderson may be, but the infinite caution, or uncaring, that has ruled this landscape for so long could use a dose of insanity. Its an insult to say that wanting to put up office buildings or wanting to grow the black economy like Santa Monicas is a pipe dream, says Anderson. At King and Crenshaw, one of our most important intersections in the black community, it was such a big deal when that Krispy Kreme opened a few years back. Its a goddamned doughnut shop. No added value to the community. You would have thought they were opening the Taj Mahal.
About the closest thing the neighborhood got to that was West Angeles Churchs new multimillion-dollar cathedral, which dominates two blocks along the Crenshaw corridor south of the 10 freeway and looks like, well, a stone fortress. Churches have always been the most consistently prosperous of black businesses, though their prosperity has little trickle-down in the aging neighborhoods where they tend to be located. But Wyatt says it isnt up to churches to make the difference, but to the black population at large. Theres been public disinterest as well as private disinvestment, he remarks as we drive north along Vermont, past a string of small motels and Manual Arts High School. We dont demand social amenities, but also we dont demand other things like quality public education. We need to get in front of public policy instead of chasing a problem, which is what weve done forever. The whole model of response has to change.
We are back to square one -- paragraph one, to be exact: The notions of change have to change. The problem is not fundamentally that, 10 years after, we have no industry or office buildings and no Nordstrom, or that were getting a Wal-Mart at the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza instead of something more befitting Crenshaws leisure-class demographics. The problem is that too many black people have decamped from the places where they actually live, and they did it long before 1992. They live in Crenshaw or Hyde Park or Leimert Park but have taken their dollars, and what dreams they have left, elsewhere. A place without a critical mass of dreams is a vacuum that is filled, at best, with a subsistence mentality; anything less is decline. The riots threw some dreams into brilliant relief, but decline is what remains most visible, the problem that Wyatt admits we are all still chasing. Black people have no legacy of business, sighs one veteran advocate of Crenshaw economic development. We dont have that business stratum other groups of people develop. Everybody wants to be a government worker and live here, go to work every day, shop somewhere else and come home and maybe invite friends over, and thats it. End of story.