When brothers Ron and Richard Harris relocated their coffeehouse-theater operation from Hollywood to Leimert Park in 1999, it seemed like a rare alignment of planets for all concerned. The Harrises were looking for a new, more culturally receptive environment in which to serve brew and produce African-American-themed plays, some of which had gotten good critical notices; Community Build, the nonprofit organization formed after the ’92 unrest to help develop minority-owned businesses, was seeking tenants for its new office complex who could run a viable business as well as increase Degnan Boulevard’s reputation as a center for African-American arts. Leimert Park was still smarting from the loss of two flagship businesses, Fifth Street Dick’s Jazz Coffeehouse and Marla Gibbs’ Crossroads Theater Complex, and the loss of the inimitable personalities that had run them. Both the Harrises and Community Build president Brenda Shockley were eager to fill the gap in as many ways as possible, as soon as possible. Community Build even lent the Harrises $10,000 cash to start up a new restaurant, Christoria le Florence. The marriage appeared to be a good one.
Today, Community Build and the Harrises have almost finalized a bitter divorce. The Lucy Florence Coffeehouse and the Harrises’ two other businesses in the Community Build complex — the 4305 Village Theater and Christoria le Florence Restaurant — will, barring a miracle, close for good this week. The Harrises owe Community Build some $28,000 in back rent and legal fees; they have not paid rent since March. The clock on an eviction order obtained by Shockley after more than a year of wrangling with the Harrises over unpaid rent and lapsed insurance policies ran out officially at midnight Saturday, and Community Build plans to take possession this week. (In an eleventh-hour move, the Harrises did go back to Superior Court Tuesday offering to pay $30,000 to resolve the problem, but Community Build rejected the offer, saying the Harrises had plenty of chances to make restitution. The court agreed.)
What distinguishes this commercial landlord-tenant dispute from the hundreds of others in L.A. are issues of community and economic development that loom especially large on a street as small but as culturally significant as Degnan, a focal point of the Crenshaw district.
The Harrises say they have done well by Degnan and have claimed — very publicly, at points — harassment from their landlord, who they suggest is acting vindictively and betraying its duty to help black-owned businesses in unceremoniously showing the brothers the door. Shockley counters sharply that Community Build is more than aware of its mission, and that the matter of eviction is entirely one of business. “I’ve been asking people the question ‘What would you do if somebody wasn’t paying the rent?’” says Shockley. “This organization and this building is here for the good of the community. We’re a nonprofit. Everybody has to carry their weight.”
Shockley and the Harrises do agree that things started going sour well over a year ago. The Harrises, who are identical twins, agreed to host a couple of high-profile events — a reception for UCLA’s new basketball coach and a repast for the family and friends of Celes King, the longtime Central L.A. activist who died last spring. The problem was not the events themselves but the fact that the Harrises held them in a park adjacent to Lucy Florence that is part of the office complex owned by Community Build, without clearing them with Shockley first, per the lease agreement. Shockley also discovered, just before the UCLA event, that the Harrises’ insurance was not current. She somewhat reluctantly let the event go ahead as planned; thanks to the involvement of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, the city provided the necessary insurance. The following week, Shockley says, she found out about the King repast only when new 8th District Councilman Bernard Parks called. Community Build even picked up the insurance tab itself this time, “out of respect for Celes,” says Shockley.
But unauthorized use of the park was only one problem. Shockley says — and the Harrises deny — that the brothers were frequently not paying rent on time, or not paying it in full, or bouncing checks when they did pay. Last November, Community Build sued the Harrises for back rent totaling $13,000. But there were still attempts at maintaining a working relationship; in January, Shockley dismissed the lawsuits after the Harrises paid up and agreed to pay the $5,700 rent on time and make their insurance current within 30 days. But after a month, Shockley says, the insurance, despite the Harrises’ producing a copy of a title, was not being enforced. “That was it,” says Shockley. “We said, enough. We draw the line with our tenants at solvency and public safety.”
Besides the current tenant-landlord tiff, there are the stories of the spectacularly bad relations the Harrises have had with people they’ve worked closely with. Nancy Cheryl Davis-Bellamy, director of the Towne Street Theater, a well-regarded African-American theater ensemble, thought she’d found an ideal home in the 4305 Village Theater. But when the Harrises demanded a cut of the proceeds of a show Towne Street was performing there in 2001 — the theater’s first full-scale production — Davis-Bellamy says, the company found itself locked out of the theater one night and unable to finish its run; patrons who showed up with tickets were turned away. Ron Harris disputes this account, saying that he and Richard were only looking to settle their percentage of the box-office receipts per the agreement, and that they never locked the company out.
Richard Cryer, who was the chef at Christoria le Florence, says he quit last year after the Harrises tried to sow seeds of division by urging their employees not to talk to Shockley and others at Community Build. Cryer says the Harrises also owe him hundreds of dollars in pay that he never got. “They really burn bridges,” says Cryer, who works as an independent caterer. “They’ve done it to just about everybody they’ve ever worked with or who’s tried to help them.” Ron Harris disputes this as well; he says that since Community Build had filed suit at that point, he was merely advising his employees not to discuss litigation with the plaintiff. Harris also denies owing Cryer money, pointing out that “we named the restaurant after his grandmother Christoria. We don’t have anything negative to say about him. It’s pretty sad.”
Indeed it is — for the community at large. Whatever the failings of the Harris brothers, the fact is that locals congregated at Lucy Florence because it was comfortable, well appointed, and the coffee was good. They went to the shows and jazz performances at the theater because they were quality. The restaurant, as well as the Le Florence Gallery down the block, run by the Harrises (not a Community Build property), was similarly appealing and spoke to a kind of wider vision and ambition that Leimert Park needs more of. Whether that will continue or whether a key part of Crenshaw development will stall once again is an open question. “We didn’t just come here and make a difference,” says a miffed Ron Harris. “We went above and beyond.” That the brothers took things to an extreme is something nobody could argue with.