In 1994, architect and developer Michael Anderson felt on the verge of realizing an ambitious project he had been shopping around for months: a five-story office building that would have brought hundreds of government employees to the Crenshaw area and provided its economy with a badly needed shot in the arm. Anderson had collected many letters of support from community leaders and politicians, and had gotten vocal support from Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
But at a Crenshaw meeting of the board of commissioners of the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency's (CRA), when Anderson prepared to ask the board for public aid, something odd happened: Ridley-Thomas suddenly left the room and three commissioners followed suit. Anderson was then informed his project could not be addressed because the quorum had been broken. After securing $14 million in funding and sinking $175,000 of his company's money into making the proposal work, Anderson was left to watch Ridley-Thomas stand him up. “This is something the community really needed. I got everybody on board this project, including Ted Kennedy,” says Anderson bitterly. “But I couldn't get Mark.”
It is a common complaint in the Crenshaw district. A growing number of people looking to turn the area around say they have been repeatedly disappointed by a councilman who, despite presenting himself as a man of the people, seems pathologically indifferent to their concerns. They accuse him of being merely another politician on a power trip, motivated largely by a compulsive need to control everything that goes on in his district. And while they acknowledge that the councilman once seemed to be paving the way for large-scale projects – by lobbying successfully for Crenshaw's inclusion in his South-Central district, then by expanding redevelopment zones there after the riots – they feel that little of that promise has been filled. “He doesn't do what's good for the community because he spends most of the time cultivating outside interests, namely the Coliseum [football stadium],” says John Caldwell, a Crenshaw-area attorney who represents the Leimert Park Merchants Assn. “He stays silent. He's not with the community at a time when it desperately needs him.”
At the dawn of his political career, Ridley-Thomas was regarded as a great black hope, lionized on the cover of the now-defunct L.A. Reader as a principled urban warrior, a politician schooled in civil rights activism but focused on the future, an elected official who would be able to finally bridge the growing gap between politics and populism and, through sheer force of will, speed revitalization in the city's steadily eroding black community. Today, despite local plaudits for his neighborhood Empowerment Congresses, Ridley-Thomas is regarded by many constituents as quite the opposite – temperamental, often vindictive and too ready to invoke the wishes of community to mask his own motives. Some are even saying they were better served when, before re-districting, the Crenshaw district was represented by 6th District Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. “When Ruth Galanter was in office, her style was, 'Give the people what they want,'” says one public official who asked not to be named. “With Mark, it's more like, 'I'm going to give the people what it is I've decided they want.'”
Developer Anderson says he has been burned more than once. A $600,000 revitalization plan now being touted by the city for Leimert Park is virtually identical to one proposed five years ago by Anderson, down to the funding source. But in the city's version, Anderson is not involved. Another one of his projects, a palm-tree beautification of Crenshaw Boulevard, resurfaced with a different architect in place. The Ladera Heights-based architect said the betrayals are especially galling because “you have to work three times as hard in the black community to get things done, and then you get burned. I thought Mark was serious about things. He created all these opportunities for developers [after '92], and then nothing happened.”
Development advocates agree that Ridley-Thomas' obsession with his own, often acutely personal, agenda has contributed to the snail's pace of economic progress in Crenshaw; the recent furor reported by the Weekly over the councilman's attempt to thwart development in the Santa Barbara Plaza because of a tiff with plaza developer Magic Johnson illustrates the point. (Ridley-Thomas passed an ambiguously worded motion in council Tuesday to swiftly and “successfully” conclude negotiations between Johnson Development and the CRA. A deal was finalized that afternoon, and development is moving forward.) Crenshaw is the 8th District's best hope for rapid revitalization, but with Ridley-Thomas at the helm, many people doubt that will happen.
Ridley-Thomas himself is sanguine about the criticism and maintains that his office has in fact done much development during his tenure. And he has unquestionably brought development into the area in the form of supermarkets, auto-parts shops, affordable housing complexes. But critics note that this is not the kind of development that generates core jobs and in turn stimulates the local economy. When asked specifically about projects like Anderson's, Ridley-Thomas shrugs and says that everyone in South-Central, perhaps understandably, wants everything to happen now. “Hey, we're out here doing it,” he says. “Development is tough. Not everybody is going to be happy with what goes on. That's the nature of the business. We got a Shoe Warehouse [on Crenshaw] where there used to be a liquor store. You may have problems with the warehouse, but you have to say it's a hell of an improvement over what was there.”
Sources say that Ridley-Thomas' pettiness knows no bounds; when angered, he is as quick to antagonize Magic Johnson as he is mom-and-pop business owners. In Leimert Park Village, home to a renowned but struggling enclave of black businesses that offer arts, food and music, merchants complain they get no political attention because for the last year they have been feuding with the councilman over the installation of 600 parking meters in two city-owned lots adjacent to the village. The battle is really less about the meters than about Ridley-Thomas' failure to inform merchants of the city's intent to place the meters, and then his subsequent refusal to back down from an imperious position. (At a local meeting on the issue, the councilman, when pressed on why he was being inflexible, insisted simply, “I know black people, and I know politics.”) The merchants lost the war – the meters were installed – but the animus continues, as well as what look like retaliatory measures from Ridley-Thomas' office.
The Leimert Park Jazz Festival, one of several festivals held in the area each year and a key source of merchant revenue, was very nearly cancelled following the meter flap. On September 5, two weeks before the event, festival founder and jazz activist Diana Wimbish received a letter from Ridley-Thomas saying that the event had to be canceled because parking was insufficient and that one lot would be closed “until the parking meter issue has been resolved.” Ridley-Thomas backed down only when it looked as if the story would come out in the press. “It wasn't the meters, it was his attitude,” says Lee Williams, an artist who works out of a studio on Degnan Boulevard, the village's main drag. “He treated us with total disdain.”
If merchants are disgruntled, increasingly their concern is the Leimert Park Village Community Development Corporation (CDC), a nonprofit organization largely assembled and controlled by the councilman and his district consultant, Kay Hixson, that was set up to address development issues and channel public funds. Many merchants say the councilman has used the group to consolidate his own power and bypass their input about the redevelopment of Leimert Park. “It's really Mark interfering,” says Laura Hendrix, owner of Gallery Plus on Degnan. “A lot of money will be coming through the CDC, and it'll ultimately be spent according to his wishes.”
Margaret Douroux, a gospel-music composer and CEO of the Heritage Music Foundation, inadvertently discovered the power of the CDC when her national organization began trying to purchase the sprawling Vision Theater complex in Leimert Park. Douroux had dreamed for years of opening a gospel hall and museum, and Leimert, which already boasts jazz and blues venues, seemed like a perfect locale. But when Douroux and a broker submitted a $1 million proposal to First Bank of Beverly Hills, the bank that owns the complex, bank officials told her that Ridley-Thomas didn't want the building, once owned by actress Marla Gibbs, to be sold. (Bank officials confirm that they are working with the Leimert Park CDC, the CRA and the city to secure the complex and that “it is not for sale at this time.”) Douroux, who has watched the proposal sit in limbo for a year, is most dispirited about Ridley-Thomas' cold shoulder to the proposal. “It's something I thought would be a priority for him,” she says. “But when I went to talk to him, he was like, 'What do you want from me?'”
Many in the Crenshaw community believe that what Ridley-Thomas clearly wants is the new CDC administering projects, even if those projects seem to be beyond its scope or jurisdiction. “It's a way of bypassing merchants' input in terms of redeveloping the area,” says Laura Hendrix, who is on the CDC's board of directors. “Projects are assigned that we don't even know about.” Among other evidence, they cite a facade-improvement program along Crenshaw Boulevard that was once being done by the CRA but has now been shifted to the CDC – another Ridley-Thomas power grab, sources say, at the expense of community betterment. Last June, property owners were all set to receive the $500,000 worth of sorely needed storefront improvements along Crenshaw, until Ridley-Thomas decided to hold off implementing the program. The councilman made the move, sources say, for no other reason than to place money where he could best dictate how it was spent. “This slows everything down,” says property owner Lawrence Williamson. “I can't get tenants because I don't have the improvements, and I have to pay for it myself piece by piece. In all of this political posturing, something's going to suffer.”
Photographer and veteran activist Nareshimah Osei believes that Ridley-Thomas has lost his fire for the black-based issues that propelled him to office in the first place. “He becomes like so many other black politicians who are quick to say, 'I represent black folks,' but are not really stepping up to the plate,” he says. “All we get are a bunch of excuses.”
Even staunch Ridley-Thomas supporters at the very least split with the councilman over the Johnson Development issue, the largest black-operated retail development in the area to date. “Mark has a very good foundation because he came out of the civil rights movement, which gives him a sense of struggle and fairness,” says Kwaku Person-Lynn, a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “But sometimes you can get caught up in the political machine and lose sight of what real people want. If you're inhibiting someone like Magic Johnson, someone who has a good track record in the community, you're fighting a losing battle. Mark's a friend, but I'd be the first one to picket him over that.”
Leimert Park artist Kisasi Ramsess is an old high school comrade of the councilman, and now also one of the greatest thorns in his side. Last fall, after the parking-meter fight, Ramsess started drawing and circulating distinctly unflattering political cartoons of Ridley-Thomas and still puts out one a week. The councilman reacted strongly to the first drawing, which depicted him as Napoleon and which the councilman perceived as a possible threat on his life. He first sent police to investigate and later sent his wife, Avis, who heads the dispute-resolution center in the City Attorney's Office. He did not dispatch himself, though the Ridley-Thomases live mere blocks from the village. “I told Mark, 'I could just as easily be doing murals of you instead of these cartoons,'” says the artist. “When he was with the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], I thought he was real down-to-earth. He seemed like somebody truly open to helping people. He wasn't trying to prove anything, he seemed liked he was living out the legacy of Martin Luther King. But power has corrupted him. Now he rides around in his Lincoln Town Car like a preacher, like he owns the place.”
Not all of the village merchants feel the ongoing antagonism is necessary or entirely of Ridley-Thomas' making. One proprietor who asked not to be named said that the larger problem is that many black people, shafted so often in the past, are quick to trust no one. “I just don't know what good it does anybody to keep the conflict [over the parking meters] at this level,” he says. “Doing the cartoons of Mark is like poking a pit bull. Some [black merchants] see everything in a parasitic way – everything that happens around here as a taking away of what they have, never as a synergy. And that's a shame.”