When the eventual Metro Line trains connecting LAX and Union Station are up and running, travelers arriving to town via that route will get their first glimpse of the urban landscape when the train emerges at the Hyde Park Station on Crenshaw Boulevard. The train then will travel on street level for about a mile north on Crenshaw, before turning east toward Leimert Park and, from there, zigzagging above and below street level, toward the downtown skyline.
But let’s focus on that first mile for a moment — because that is what the Destination Crenshaw project is all about. Of course any civic-minded Angeleno would want travelers (and themselves) to enjoy a proper L.A. greeting when the train joins the street: public art, neon signs, trees, street culture. But these aren’t just any Angelenos — these are the residents and cultural heirs and stewards of the Crenshaw neighborhood, an area that is beyond rich in history, whose generations of pioneering accomplishments from music to sports, social justice and the arts have influenced the city, the nation and the world.
And that’s the spirit in which the ambitious and innovative Destination Crenshaw will greet those arriving to L.A. — and function 24/7 in the service of public culture for the neighborhood and the region year-round. The vision is a 1.1-mile-long, open-air museum featuring a procession of architecture, public art, green spaces, gathering points, murals, sculptures and texts that exuberantly chronicle and celebrate the infinitely creative excellence of what Crenshaw has to offer. It is, in its own words, “unapologetically black,” and it’s going to be amazing.
“Destination Crenshaw is being built for and by black Los Angeles,” reads the project’s mission statement. “Our neighborhood should visibly tell the story of our people: our history, our present and our future. We’re building the museum hand in hand with community advocates, artists and youth, to create a vibrant public space that will proudly display the significant contributions of black Los Angeles.”
A process of calls for artistic and other proposals has been going ahead, with the larger, architecturally integrated projects being awarded first (likely in the first months of 2019, around the time the first heavy-construction groundbreaking ceremonies should start); the smaller-scale, temporary projects coming online over the summer; and the scheduled opening about a year from now, in fall 2019. That’s also a year before the train opens, the idea being that it will all be ready and waiting and being used and enjoyed by the city by that time.
But even as awe-inspiring as a project of this scope and scale already is, Destination Crenshaw doesn’t have time for ordinary, conventional beautification strategies. It’s so much more creative, assertive and expressive than that! Literally every single detail is infused with cultural and historical storytelling. From plans for a 120-foot monument you can see from the plane, à la the Hollywood Sign, to the shade and shelter motifs along sidewalks, benches and throughout four large parks and a proliferation of parklets, to sidewalk brass inlay with sayings and symbols, every design element is interpretive and narrative.
City Council District 8 councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson (District 8) brought together leaders from South L.A. to ensure that Destination Crenshaw is built for and by the community. This includes artists, activists, curators, filmmakers, community organizers, musicians and an array of stakeholders and experts, including Larry Earl, Jillith Moniz, Naima Keith, Mark Steven Greenfield, Ron Finley, Tafarai Bayne, Ben Caldwell, Nipsey Hussle, Judith Baca, Felicia Filer, Adam Ayala and an expansive crew of Los Angeles cultural and social policy luminaries.
The lead architecture firm Perkins+Will, who designed, among other projects, the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in D.C., is approaching the design process with an inclusive, intersectional mission to preserve and amplify the story — right now while it’s still vibrant and intact, before the cultural erasure that these kinds of community projects often have to confront in the face of redevelopment.
Along four geographical and conceptual nodes (Improvisation, Togetherness, Firsts and Dreams), and with hundreds of instances of visual art and event-based gathering points, a story unfolds that goes all the way back to the beginning of the community, manifested in its symbolism. At a recent community meeting (sorry, but more detailed visuals are still under strict embargo during the planning stages), representatives of Perkins+Will wove a really moving tale about the foundational motif of the vision.
Whereas in their work at the Smithsonian architectural elements were derived from references to ironwork, light and water, for Destination Crenshaw, there’s an allegorical embrace of the idea of an emotional ecosystem that includes both the promise of community building and the potential trauma of urban renewal.
Though images aren’t publicly available just yet, one major and very telling, poetic clue has been offered. A design motif will run throughout the spaces, walls, sidewalks and shelters along the route — a warm yet spiky botanical called Nigerian giant star grass, or sometimes Bermuda grass. Hearty as heck and known for its ability to thrive in inhospitable conditions, it was native to Africa but now grows on every continent. And that’s because it was used as haylike bedding for the human cargo of the transatlantic slave trade. Everywhere those kidnapped people landed, these grass seeds followed, and took root, and thrived.
Like black culture in America, in Los Angeles and in Crenshaw, that grass, to borrow a phrase from the Bible, grew where it was planted. And now it will symbolically represent the ultimate growth of culture and pride and beauty and life, whose seeds are being planted again right now, in Crenshaw. Stay tuned for details of the coming abundant harvest.
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