Photo by Debra DiPaolo

The news reverberated this month with the shock of a loud and sudden thunderclap in the midst of L.A.’s bone-dry winter. It was revealed that Macy’s — which had just closed a historic store that served the black community — also had pledged nearly $1 million to community groups most likely to be critical of the store’s shutdown.

Predictably, Macy’s characterized the timing of the two events as a coincidence. Some community members interpreted the donations as a belated — albeit insulting — act of corporate conscience. Macy’s was not wont to aid local causes to this degree in the past, and many incensed Crenshaw residents perceived the donations as a tacky attempt to head off the inevitable hard feelings over the subsequent January 9 store closing; at worst, the contributions were cash incentives for veteran activist groups to stay out of the fray when the bomb dropped and their constituents started complaining.

Whatever the case, the black community in the Crenshaw district got more mileage from this money than Macy’s could have anticipated — or perhaps even desired. Black people are, at least, more collectively steamed about the Macy’s escapade than they were about, say, the demise of affirmative action at public universities.

“Macy’s really miscalculated,” said John Mack of the Urban League, an organization slated to receive $150,000 over three years from Macy’s. Mack, better known for his diplomacy than militancy, insisted that the closing of the Macy’s in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was reprehensible, and vowed not to take the cash, at least until he gets some satisfactory answers. “It won’t keep me quiet,” he said of the money, adding that “the Urban League and I strongly condemn the manner in which the store closure was handled — not even the employees got advance notice.” He noted too that more than jobs and merchandise have been lost. “When you look at the history and the struggle so many of us have had trying to be supportive of the Crenshaw mall, trying to make it viable . . . it was very insensitive on [Macy’s] part not to forewarn the community.”

Even more outraged was Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade, which has been offered $100,000. Bakewell declared that his organization would accept nothing until and unless Macy’s does the right thing by the Crenshaw community — relinquishing its long-term lease of the store to the mall so it can secure another tenant, or otherwise helping to expedite the tenant-replacement process. Bakewell, as well-known for his lucrative development deals as for community agitating, vowed “to fight to the end.”

Bakewell doubtlessly relishes the prospect of a grassroots fight that calls for an uncompromising position and incendiary speeches. Since making headlines in the early ’90s for shutting down post-riot construction sites that he felt didn’t hire enough blacks, he’s been a rabble-rouser without a cause. Tossing out a challenge to fellow agitators, Bakewell added, “None of us should be taking this money and then trying to explain it away. You can’t buy the Brotherhood Crusade. I’m not saying I know exactly what Macy’s motives were, but I’ve been around long enough to know that people don’t just give out unsolicited amounts of money for no reason.”

Points well taken, although it’s not clear that Bakewell, Mack or any other grant recipient would have spoken out were it not for Brenda Shockley, the president of Community Build. It was Shockley who, at a public meeting shortly after the store closed, announced that her group and the others had received donation pledges in December, just prior to the shutdown. Until then, no organization heads thought to mention either the donations or their curious timing.

Like the others, Shockley’s group has not yet decided to accept the money.

While inner-city investment may be on the press releases, that was not likely the real agenda at the Federated Group, Macy’s parent, which for years presided over a sort of capitalist endgame at the Crenshaw mall. Local shoppers long noted the concerted neglect of the Baldwin Hills location — its status as stepchild in the Macy’s chain. Beyond the fact that the merchandise was sorely lacking, stores in posher locales had a policy of not accepting Crenshaw-bought merchandise for return or exchange; newspaper ads listing stores where featured merchandise could be found explicitly omitted the Baldwin Hills location. Residents perhaps could have resigned themselves to a bargain-outlet version of Macy’s, but the store didn’t succeed at that level either. The black response to the problem was typically just to leave the neighborhood and shop at the better sites, so the decline of the Crenshaw Macy’s long ago became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Though the Crenshaw area is regarded as the best hope for economic revival in Central L.A., Macy’s managed its store like a target of planned obsolescence. Critics say that view closely coincides with how other retailers and developers see the African-American market in general: They don’t.

Macy’s tried to give itself some cover against community outrage. When manage-ment closed the Crenshaw Macy’s, it also shuttered one in Westwood, a prosperous part of town that will hardly suffer from the loss as Crenshaw will. And the donations, though concentrated in South-Central, did not go exclusively to that area: Madres del Este de Los Angeles and the Puente Learning Center, both based in East L.A., and the Bay Area Urban League in Northern California round out the list.

Not surprisingly, Federated officials directed all inquiries to a local black-owned public-relations firm that it hired three years ago after enduring criticism over the possible shutdown of the Crenshaw Macy’s at that time. Kim L. Hunter, of Lagrant Communications, gamely insisted that the Macy’s closure — which he said he had no prior notice of — was purely a business decision, and that the cash grants, in turn, were motivated by nothing more than altruism. As for Macy’s failure in Crenshaw, Hunter blames chronic mall mismanagement and shifting demographics as contributing factors to the poor sales performance.

But in a real sense, the altered dem-ographics have more to do with black middle-class shoppers — still living in Crenshaw — who shifted their dollars to the Westside Pavilion, for example, because it had a better Macy’s.

Given that Macy’s will suffer little commercial consequence from its Crenshaw desertion, it’s somewhat puzzling that the retailer bothered to shield itself from criticism at all.

Macy’s didn’t have to buy silence from blacks, because, noted one activist, they have been silent a long time anyway. Eighth District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas may have voiced his disapproval, but “what happened to all those other black elected officials when Macy’s closed — Kevin Murray, Diane Watson, Nate Holden? Where were they?” demanded the activist, who asked not to be named for this story. (Apparently, even these stilled voices retain too much power over their own to risk offending.)

And yet, how is the black community — or the progressive community at large — supposed to act in this post–civil rights era, in which economic inequality has become the civil rights struggle of the ’90s? How do underserved communities ensure that the private sector does the right thing? It’s no longer a matter of isolating the racist for public exposure or conducting a sit-in at a lunch counter; protests and moral indignation — even if such things were still commonplace — don’t cut it alone. The private sector must be cultivated even while it is criticized. Activists want to see major retailers like Macy’s invest in minority areas that desperately need the jobs and services — and where good capitalists can and do make money despite all preconceptions to the contrary.

In this instance, it wasn’t just Macy’s that stood by and did too little.

“Everybody saw that the merchandise was raggedy at Macy’s,” said the activist. “Everybody drove by it, but we didn’t do anything. We were waiting for the system to save us. And as we waited, everything died.

“This whole event is an object lesson in how we have to monitor political and social and economic activity in our neighborhoods and hold all pertinent parties accountable. We’re not fighting for our future. We haven’t been for 30 years.”

Nor will mounting a post–civil rights strategy in black L.A. get any easier as black residents continue to disperse from traditional strongholds. The Macy’s debacle, at least, rekindled a fighting spirit among black organizations, who’ve voiced a rare solidarity.

What all of this amounts to may be tested sooner than anyone wants. Robinsons-May, another original Crenshaw mall tenant, is also rumored to be considering exit strategies. Mall official Joe Paggi said he’s determined to have a contingency plan ready and not be caught by surprise next time. Local leaders had better be proactive too: The clamor of a thousand community groups in the aftermath of a business closing down is not likely to bring it back.

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