Photos by Robert Hale

Every day, if the weather cooperates and my exercise conscientiousness
holds, I go for a walk. I get in my car and drive about a mile north of my house,
park on a sleepy side street off Manchester Boulevard and begin an elliptical,
four-mile-plus loop around the once-fabulous Great Western Forum in Inglewood.

The walk is an hour long, steadily though not extremely uphill, and has virtually
no cross streets to encumber thought or concentration. I also have the company
of many other people on this walk; we nod in passing, exchange brief hellos or,
if we are plugged into something electronic, vigorously wave to each other in
silence. I realized, after about a year of this, that besides trying to shed 15
pounds with the least amount of sweat, I was also making a kind of daily pilgrimage
to one of the touchstone buildings of my childhood. I grew up in L.A. near Century
Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, just east of the Inglewood border, and for everybody
in the vicinity, not only was the Forum the home of the beloved Lakers, its vast
parking lot was a concrete open field that invited us to race go-carts, ride bikes,
roller-skate, skateboard, operate toy cars and airplanes by remote, launch kites
in a sky clear of telephone lines and — finally — learn to drive.

The Forum was the beckoning plain and eternal point of exploration that we imagined kids in less urban places — the Valley, Orange County — had in abundance. It was also something else: the lake or swimming hole or fishing pond that our parents, not long out of the poor but warmly recalled South or Midwest, talked about as the refuge they took from hard times or from hard-eyed white folks when they were young, a place to go that always felt comfortable and possible and never turned them away. This was what the Forum was to us in the early ’70s, a hallowed ground that was both exceptional and humble, public but somehow secret, limitless in the opportunities it gave us to be the standard-issue kids we needed to be, with our kites and planes and presumptions of inheriting the good, post-South life our parents had laid down for us. Things were on the up-and-up. The Forum was the best reflection of Inglewood itself. Inglewood was a small city without great wealth, but in our eyes, it glittered; with its sports palace and spirit of civic accommodation, we knew its fortunes would only increase.

of two cities: The abandoned
Imperial Theater on Imperial Highway
(top) tells one story, while the
perfectly maintained homes and
yards on 82nd and Victoria
tell another.

Besides the Forum, Inglewood had Market Street, which my friends and I would visit by bus most Saturdays. Market was the sort of old-fashioned main drag that marked many a city in Southern California, set them apart from amorphous Los Angeles and the even more bewildering, oceanic sprawl of L.A. County. Market was a few minutes west of the Forum and had that same casual magic, and everything we needed in the span of three blocks — two movie theaters, two department stores, drugstore, record shop, knickknack shop, bookstore, several boutiques, snack shop, shoe stores, head shop, jewelry and gift stores. If you had no money to begin with or went broke before the end of the day, you could simply wander; contemplate buying something on layaway or sneak into another showing of a 50-cent double feature. There were options.

As it happened, Inglewood was mostly a black city that had rapidly become so after 1965, when the Watts Riots convinced many whites who had for decades dominated metropolitan L.A. west of Main Street that their time was up, or that they could no longer live in the ethnic isolation they’d designed for themselves and taken for granted. Inglewood was about the last white town to fall, mostly because it’s as far west and south as you can go before hitting Westchester, Playa del Rey, El Segundo — coastal havens that were, and still are, pretty homogeneous.

I was aware of none of this growing up; to me, Inglewood was simply a place for family, and I assumed it would stay like that. There was no reason for me to think otherwise. When my family took the suburban plunge in 1976 and moved 35 miles, from 98th Street to West Covina, in 1976, we stuck it out in a strange land for less than a year before moving back to the place we always considered home — Inglewood, our suburb of choice all along. We had friends and family who peeled off over the years to Downey, Cerritos, Arleta, even Woodland Hills, Orange County, and then, sometime later, Diamond Bar, Moreno Valley and Riverside. We nodded congratulations but tacitly declined to visit; they would simply have to visit us. Inglewood was the center of gravity, the still-evolving frontier of good things and significant change not merely for our family but for the whole black community, and in the biggest sense for every wishful thinker in L.A. determined to flesh out a dream of easier living, because fleshing out any dream seemed so possible here. In Inglewood, that was going nicely because blacks lived here in great numbers, not in the usual cordoned-off inner city or redlined enclave, but in a real town a few miles from the Pacific, the great, golden omega of the Western frontier. We had almost made it.

Inglewood is different today. It is solid and livable, but no longer arcing up or reaching for new possibilities. It seems finished with itself, content with its few successes and general mediocrity, which, while not inspiring, is better than the outright despair that permeates most black neighborhoods still. But it is not so golden anymore, which in some ways feels worse. Mediocrity is a sin of ambition that distresses me because, after being gone for the better part of 20 years, I live in Inglewood again and would like to stay put. My husband and I bought a townhouse in 2001, then a house last year. The house is wonderful, luminously green and accented with California-Chinese lanterns that were high style in 1953, when the house and the entire tract were built. My block is well-tended and exudes the heart and optimism I associated with Inglewood in my formative and most patriotic years, when I would have defended the bizarre entirety of Los Angeles to anybody on Earth. A neon spire still winks atop the Academy Theater on Manchester — one of L.A.’s best-preserved movie palaces, now a church — and is one of the first, best things you see when you’re in a plane returning home in the dark, a grand old light of red and purple to warm that odd moment between dropping below the marine layer for the last time and touching down, again, at LAX.

expectations: Market Street (top)
has been given a modest face-lift but
remains stubbornly underachieving.
The abandoned gas station at Yukon
and Imperial is a familiar and
haunting image for many residents.

Of course, there’s the Forum, not as fabulous as it once was, because the Lakers — along with the Kings and the L.A. Sparks — moved east to Staples Center in 1999, but it’s still the sprawling gathering place of my youth. Other things, though, have changed in ways I can’t quite fathom and don’t want to accept. Market Street still has some lovely edifices and a sense of being the heart of town, but overall it has moved backward, receded into a distance; through the years the theaters became porno houses, then nameless storefronts, then sealed tombs; J.C. Penney collapsed into a swap meet, and the once-elegant Boston Store into a shuttered old jewelry expo. The men’s clothing shop, with its flagstone front, and the Big 5 are hanging on beneath a bare forest of new streetlamps and shrubbery the city put up some years ago as part of the $3.6 million Market Street Renaissance, begun in 2000. Like so many things, the revitalization effort, started with great fanfare — a groundbreaking ceremony starring the local middle school band, speeches by assorted dignitaries — and then faltered. It might simply have paused, but a pause of five years (and getting longer) is too ominous for optimism.

There are fast-food outlets — too many to count — on corners where there used to be full restaurants and services and offices. People look much more wary of each other than they used to; despite the city’s middle-class moorings, the stigma of being a black town has, in the pitiless era of hip-hop, grown greater over time, and Inglewood now seems resolved not to challenge that stigma any longer, but to suffer it. Embracing home as I once did has gone from being a cause for joy to being a cross to bear, an unpleasant reality that sets my smile on edge. I love community and always have, but I also moved here to prosper, to look forward. The querulous looks I often get when I tell people I live in Inglewood now anger me. When I drive home and realize I’ve passed one beauty shop too many and realize those people might be a little bit right, I get angry — mostly at Inglewood. The clean shroud of hope and memories vanishes, and my city stands naked as the promising underachiever who fucked up and could least afford to because everybody was counting so heavily on his success. What happened to you? I want to shout out the car window at the offending landscape. Where did you go? And sometimes: Why am I here?

glory: The Fox Theater on
Market, once an art deco gem.

Yes, I know. What’s happened in Inglewood — or hasn’t — has happened swiftly
to black communities everywhere in the last couple of generations: job loss due
to deindustrialization, government disinterest, shrinking tax bases exacerbated
by the passage of Proposition 13 in the late ’70s, bad schools made worse by resegregation,
crack cocaine, upwardly mobile blacks bailing out altogether and moving either
back South or anywhere not black. The list goes on, and the fallout is
undeniable. But in my mind, Inglewood was supposed to be special, different, a
charmed L.A. place among L.A. places that could weather all that and come out
on the other side.

Only a year ago it gained a kind of prominence it had never had before as the
archetypal small town that fought off the evil advances of Wal-Mart, the biggest
corporation in the world, hell-bent on building a Supercenter here. Inglewood
voters — myself included — defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed Wal-Mart
to build on 60 acres of land with virtually no civic oversight or public input.
It was David beating back Goliath, self-determination triumphing over corporate
master planning, and worried people in unspoiled small towns across America cheered.
The fact that Inglewood was a black and Latino city that Wal-Mart assumed would
be a path of least resistance made the victory that much sweeter, and in our rejection
of the ballot measure there was affirmation of some sense of self and a collective
vision of a future. Even Inglewood’s famously fractured City Council joined forces
to oppose Wal-Mart and to declare that, yes, the city could and would do better;
overnight, council members became advocates in a way they never had before.

The sense that real reform and accountability were taking hold in Inglewood, from the grassroots up, was bolstered by the Coalition for a Better Inglewood, the watchdog development group that materialized to fight off Wal-Mart and encouraged a brand of activism in the city that it hasn’t seen in a very long time. True, the coalition is a creation of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the Santa Monica nonprofit best known for its living-wage and pro-labor (and, lately, anti–Wal-Mart) campaigns in Santa Monica and elsewhere. But just enough Inglewood folk — residents, church leaders, politicos — joined the effort to give it a more local feel.

And yet more than a year afterward, the vision that looked so imminent is looking, well, fuzzy. The coalition has shifted from being philosophically against Wal-Mart to being willing to negotiate a community-benefits agreement that would include affordable health insurance, guarantees of overtime pay and other unionlike conditions that Wal-Mart is famous for not granting any of its employees anywhere on the planet. A bold tactical move, perhaps, but one mapped out by LAANE strategists looking to up the ante in their long-term struggle against Wal-Mart and looking to make Inglewood their test case. Benefits agreements negotiated between big developers and communities are generally positive things — the developers of Staples Center have one with the city of L.A. — but the one now being floated by LAANE on Inglewood’s behalf raises some thorny questions about outsiders calling the shots; after all, the voters who nixed the Wal-Mart initiative last year might very well have been nixing the idea of Wal-Mart in Inglewood at all (I, for one, was).

Meanwhile, the combination of political will and capital interest that has revitalized other small cities, such as Culver City, Alhambra, Pasadena, El Segundo, Long Beach, South Pasadena and Santa Monica, can’t get any traction here. Inglewood has some encouraging signs — in the last four years, major retailers like Target, Home Depot, Costco, Bally’s Fitness and Staples have all sprung up like mushrooms around the proposed Wal-Mart site on Century Boulevard. As every commercial developer and real estate agent knows, stores beget more stores, and the mile of Century between Prairie and Crenshaw (what the mayor likes to call “The Marketplace”) is beginning to look like a miniature city of commerce, all sandstone buildings and oversize parking lots; Marshall’s and Red Lobster and Chili’s are slated to come next.

All of this is reassuring to a point, progress even, but it is not enough. Stores are fine, but these stores could be anywhere; they are generic rather than specific, pleasant accouterments that tend to obscure the main story rather than illuminate it. Not that I don’t appreciate having a Jamba Juice or a Bally’s nearby, but if big-box convenience was all I wanted, I would have moved to Diamond Bar long ago. What I want, what I came back for and what Inglewood represented to me is a place with inimitable character and ambition made of more lasting stuff, a place that can survive Staples — or Wal-Mart, if it comes to that. A place that will always be a point of return.

country: The author (age 3)
with older sister Kelly at
Hollywood Park, circa 1965.

I am not living this uneasy feeling alone. My friend John has been fuming about the unspectacular failure of Inglewood for years. He doesn’t live here but is a longtime developer who deeply believes that urban African-American communities — what’s left of them — can and must thrive, and that middle-class communities like Inglewood can and must lead the way, but is equally convinced that Inglewood won’t thrive, because its political leadership is simply not up to the task, and never has been. (Because of his ongoing business interests in Inglewood, John did not want to use his real name.)

It galls him to no end that the window of opportunity for 25 years of black leadership to leave a lasting and positive legacy in Inglewood is closing. We have been here all along but have failed to make this place ours, on our own terms, to lay a base of black prosperity and fortitude that future generations can build on, or at least leave a mark that they will not forget easily or eradicate completely. We have lived here, he says, but not made a history.

Though he’s overstating things a bit, it’s clear to anybody living here any length of time that the people in City Hall most obviously responsible for Inglewood’s future are not doing their jobs. Elected officials, planners, redevelopment types, consultants, assistants, hired guns — collectively, they’re all getting paid to carry out a vision that they haven’t bothered to formulate.

“You know something? If these people were running a Fortune 500 company, they’d be goddamn fired,”John says. His anger is righteous and not uncomplicated or uncompromised in itself. But somebody must hold Inglewood, and other places before it, accountable, rather than just write it off as yet another black neighborhood to bite the dust. Somebody has to act like it matters, make the wholly preventable demise of a middle-class town like Inglewood out to be a tragedy of epic proportions, a tragedy that even now, in the 10th or 11th hour, has a chance to go another way.

The city has its believers, certainly, though even they can’t help but qualify their belief. Don Eislund, former president of Inglewood Park Cemetery, one of the city’s flagship businesses, says progress will go swiftly once two things happen: The airport settles on a modernization plan, and the Inglewood council gets on the same page about development and the general direction of the city.

“We need a unified front,” says Eislund. “There are so many things out there that could be done, so much state and federal funding we could tap into. We need to be proactive, not reactive. Right now we’re being reactive.”

Richard McNish, who heads Inglewood’s economic-development department and is widely admired around City Hall, thinks the city might finally be winning the bruising battle of image. “In black and brown communities, lower property-tax rates and higher density gives you higher spending power,” he says. “Business is finally catching up to the realization that we folks got money. Inglewood is a marketplace, not a charity case.”

and the beast: The Academy
Theater, an art moderne
masterpiece, is now a church.
Century Boulevard's cheap
motels, liquor stores and
discount markets welcome
visitors arriving at LAX.

The city’s truest believer, however, may be Diane Zembrano. Every small town’s got at least one. Zembrano is a full-time Inglewood activist and civic booster who never misses a council or school-board meeting and is probably the only person in town who read the 70-page Wal-Mart initiative cover to cover; she dismisses the stunted Market Street revitalization project as “trees and bricks — a waste” and laments the fact that no real community voice has been part of any redevelopment plan so far. Inglewood did hold several neighborhood forums last fall to gather citizen input for its Economic Development Strategic Plan, essentially a fast-track effort toward a working general plan, which the city hasn’t had in decades. Zembrano went to one of the Strategic Plan meetings and was unimpressed.

“The consultants told people what they were going to do, rather than take the people’s pulse,” she says. The big shocker, she says, was that “I suggested a bookstore and was basically told, ‘People in Inglewood don’t read.’ ” Zembrano, who moved to Inglewood from Texas in 1956, would ideally like to see the city returned to a modest glory that she, like me, remembers from childhood. “We should be refurbishing those red-carpet movie palaces we used to have down on Market,” she says, almost wistfully. “We don’t value what we’ve got.”

Another city official, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees. For all its attributes, she says, Inglewood’s biggest problem is that its leaders constantly sell it short, and the Market Street Renaissance is a case in point.

“I didn’t support the project, because it was too paltry,” says the official disdainfully. “It was cosmetic. I pushed for something like the Grove or Old Town Pasadena, but that’s not the plan that was put forward.”

Of course, the fact that Inglewood hasn’t had an official plan in years made it a vacuum that tended to attract projects of the most dubious merit; a City Hall source said somebody once proposed a fish farm on Century Boulevard, a suggestion that ultimately didn’t fly but that tied up the property for a couple of years anyway. “We seem to let developers get what they want,” says the official. “Why not hold out for something better?”

John says that, demographically, developers see black communities as having spending power but also trending down in terms of income and education, and that’s the precipice it’s on. It’s market research that laps into racial bias, making cause and effect hard to quantify. But the proof is in the continued absence of things like bookstores, or in Trader Joe’s once telling Inglewood Councilman Ralph Franklin that there’s no “market” in Inglewood even though black people regularly swarm the nearest store in Westchester. Franklin says that Trader Joe’s has recently changed its tune and is considering coming to town.

Every morning during my Forum ritual, I get hopeful, even arrogant, and every time I drive back south to my house, past the shiny Costco and Smart & Final to a suddenly dead zone of doughnut shops and meager or empty storefronts, I darken. I reluctantly remember that the good times of the ’60s and ’70s, despite the influx of blacks, occurred when chiefly whites still governed Inglewood. Things were comparatively better economically then than now, but still. This is a town that first planted its flag as the Centinela Adobe in 1834, incorporated in 1908, and by the ’20s was the fastest-growing city in the United States, as well as the world leader in the production of chinchillas. In the 1950s, as aerospace in South Bay boomed, a team of military engineers developed the nation’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile — the Atlas — in Inglewood.

Like most small towns with any history in Southern California, the city was, of course, notoriously segregated — an investigation of an incident of police brutality in the ’20s rather accidentally revealed that several high-ranking members of the Inglewood police force belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. But that was then, and though the racist legacy lingers in very real ways, I’m convinced that black folks can do more to build on the blithe, little-town-that-could ambition that Inglewood once stood for. I lapse into bitter suspicions about the wherewithal of my own people. I confess to friends that it was my Jewish husband who ultimately had to persuade me to move here, because I knew far better than he what lay west of Crenshaw, on the other side of the stately pines that line the boulevard medians: niggers, poor folk, apartment dwellers, drug runners and gangbangers, all festering for years in the infamous square mile of Inglewood known as the Bottoms. I chastised myself for thoughts like this, for buying into what I call vicious stereo-hypes, and pushed them aside. But at moments I couldn’t help it. I worried in advance about a sinkhole that would drag down not only property values, but also my lifelong hopes for finding the Great Community and my place in it. This wasn’t just about being a homeowner, it was about history, about an exodus and a triumphant return, and I had to judge Inglewood harshly because I couldn’t bear not to be right about that.

good and the bad: Margo
LaDrew at her upscale La Brea
Coffee Shop; Century
Boulevard's adult bookstores.

The problem was never with all of Inglewood. Like every black neighborhood
in L.A., it has its gradations. I liked the condo complex on Manchester where
I used to live, though it was gated and security-guarded and closer to the north
end of town, which borders bona fide upper-middle-class Ladera Heights, Windsor
Hills and View Park. South Inglewood is closer to South L.A. and is a much more
tenuous matter. It has considerable business activity — the Century Boulevard
stores, the Hollywood Park Casino and just-sold Racetrack — but it also has considerable
issues. Century Boulevard running west toward the airport is a wasteland of fast
food, knockoff 99-cent stores, auto-repair lots, adult bookstores and squat motels,
hardly the welcome-to-L.A. yellow brick road that tourists might expect. South
Inglewood figures largely into the city’s image problem, which Hollywood cemented
years ago in movies like The Grand Canyon (in which Kevin Kline gets a
flat tire on the way home from the Forum and almost pays for it with his life)
and Pulp Fiction (in which Eric Stoltz’s dope dealer snaps at wary customer
John Travolta in a fit of drug-addled pique: “What do I look like, a nigger? Where
are we, Inglewood?”).

Not to be snobbish, but Inglewood is not like Compton, Watts, Crenshaw, South-Central
or even gold-standard Ladera Heights. It has a small central government, a decent
household income of $50,000 and excellent real-estate value, all in 9 square miles.
The problem is that the people in charge of Inglewood either don’t really believe
that or don’t know how to use that information to Inglewood’s benefit. After the
election last year, Wal-Mart promptly bought the 60 acres at 90th and Prairie
— the biggest parcel of viable commercial real estate in the county — where it
intended to build its Supercenter. Now, Inglewood doesn’t own the property and,
absent a battle to fight, doesn’t seem to know what to do about it next. In the
meantime, Wal-Mart is almost certainly preparing to re-launch efforts to build
a store on its 60 acres, though how and when is unclear. The city was so eager
to get a Red Lobster restaurant onboard at Century east of Prairie Boulevard,
it sold 17 acres that it did own to mall mogul Alexander Haagen for $5
a square foot — about a quarter of what it was worth.

Councilman Franklin actually argues for selling Inglewood cheap, at least in this case: The south side of Century abuts the worst part of the Bottoms, he says, and needs this kind of development — any development, really. The problem is that Haagen could build the Red Lobster, or not. In fact, all the new chain stores that have gone up bought or leased land on the 240 acres that constitute Hollywood Park, known chiefly for its racetrack. Hollywood Park was recently bought by Bay Meadows Land Co.,?a development company that hopes to revitalize a horseracing business that proliferating Indian gaming and casinos have undercut; evidently the casino that’s been operating at Hollywood Park since 1994 hasn’t been enough. Some see the potential demise of iconic Hollywood Park as yet another blow to the city’s identity. Mayor Dorn, however, is fairly itching for the track to go; he’s said that those acres can be much better used by putting up luxury hotels, restaurants, more retail. He says Hollywood Park’s closure would clear the way for Inglewood to finally realize its potential as a major entertainment and shopping attraction in Southern California. Yet Inglewood has played spectator to all this change, mostly standing by, watching, waiting and cutting a ribbon or two.

To make matters worse, the city’s redevelopment agency hasn’t done things here where and when it actually could, à la Market Street. When the Lakers fled, the Forum was bought by Faithful Central Bible Church in a historic deal in which African-Americans acquired a major concert venue for the first time. Faithful Central had ambitions of building a luxury hotel on the grounds of the Forum, but nothing has happened so far. There is a $40 million plan on the table to improve Century Boulevard with new streetscapes, public-works improvements and other amenities meant to catalyze development, but it’s been on the table for almost three years now because it hasn’t nailed down funding. Imperial Partners, a black-owned development company that also has a project slated for Watts, is hoping to build a tourist-minded hotel and entertainment complex at Century and Prairie Avenue, but it hasn’t yet acquired all of the land it needs and things are moving slowly.

Complicating progress is Inglewood’s tortured relationship with the airport, a logical source of funding for any number of Inglewood projects — such as street improvements or hotels — simply because of its proximity to LAX. The proximity is that much more significant in light of impending airport expansion, but Inglewood’s response to that so far has been to file a lawsuit over the current proposal. Not that that makes much difference; beyond getting millions in federal grant money to sound-insulate houses — virtually all of Inglewood lies in the flight path — the city has never figured out when or how to maximize the airport connection. My developer friend John says it’s yet another vacuum created by Inglewood leadership’s lack of will to take the longest view possible, construct a vision, break it down into pieces and then do it. “We don’t know how to do deals,” he says. “There’s this welfare mentality where we always look for public money — subsidies, grants, noise-mitigation money. That we understand. But when it comes to doing something of our own and making deals to benefit us, especially long-term, we don’t know how to do it.”

What makes Inglewood appealing, what still stimulates the imagination, is not development at all, but neighborhoods like mine where people still care for their houses as if they were the Taj Mahal. What makes this city is all those provincial-sounding tree streets off big thoroughfares like Manchester — Oak, Ash, Fir, Cedar, Spruce. They defy disappointment with their harmonious rows of low pastel stucco and high Spanish tile, wrought-iron gates, wide plate-glass windows and generous porches that recall the South and — like the South, I suppose — fly the occasional American flag. Outside this tableau, things are markedly different, or they’re not different enough. Like many black neighborhoods, Inglewood suffers from low expectations that have fostered a somewhat indiscriminate development philosophy I call “anything is better than a hole in the ground.” There’s a reason for that; neglect and decay are fearsome-looking to black people, cancer cells that evidence a familiar sickness — graffiti, vandalism — that has permanently hollowed out black sections of big cities everywhere. It’s always better to be doing something instead of nothing, fixing those broken windows instead of standing idle. But this approach often forces us into bizarre positions, like treating a new Fatburger or Krispy Kreme as if it’s the Taj Mahal instead of the blight it would be in a different context, a different mindset or a different place.

Inglewood’s longtime mayor, Roosevelt Dorn, has proudly called himself pro-business since he took office in 1997, and if your ideal of business stops at retail, it’s true. Dorn can’t get enough of retail. He loves Century Boulevard and all that building activity and all those big stores that refused to come in the past that have since come, and that now generate millions in sales-tax revenue every year. To him, it’s part of realizing a new kind of social justice with all deliberate speed, a long-deferred acknowledgment that Inglewood is as worthy of a Target as the next town.

of the big boxes:
“The Marketplace” on Century
Boulevard (top) is Mayor Dorn's
big idea. To many in Inglewood,
anything beats a hole in the
ground, like the one above.

A former juvenile-court judge known for his own way of doing things, Dorn supported Wal-Mart last year — the only member of the Inglewood City Council to do so — but being on the wrong side of public opinion hardly seems to have given him pause. He sees Wal-Mart, the minimum wage, no health care, biggest retail outfit in the world, not as his city’s ultimate degradation but as its ultimate validation — all those jobs for youth, all that sales-tax revenue. (Full disclosure: Last year Dorn sued my father, Larry Aubry, and his paper, the Los Angeles Sentinel, for defamation when my father wrote a column claiming that Dorn had taken several thousand dollars in contributions from Wal-Mart. A judge threw out the case last fall.) A few nuances notwithstanding, the mayor is clearly in the anything’s-better-than-a-hole-in-the-ground camp, though he is also quick to complain that Inglewood is unfairly maligned and underestimated.

“The image of Inglewood is not Inglewood,” he tells me indignantly. “This is a very desirable place to live. The property value is skyrocketing. Our elementary schools are really coming up, and we’re working on the middle and high schools. Crime is the lowest it’s been in 30 years. We have received a bad rep, and we do not deserve it.”

What Dorn doesn’t seem to realize is that part of Inglewood’s bad rep is his own; famous for his autocratic governing style and penchant for praying before council meetings (he’s also a minister), Dorn in many ways typifies the ego-driven, myopic leadership that is holding Inglewood back.

Dorn, for his part, maintains that he is Inglewood’s ultimate business partner and flag-waver, and it’s up to other city officials and civic leaders to follow suit. He boasts that all sorts of developers are interested in coming to an L.A.-area town that’s full of “prime property” — Wal-Mart is only one — and well they should be. Dorn agrees that the airport connection must be better exploited, but says much will depend on what position L.A.’s new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, takes on expansion, and what his Airport Commission will look like. But make no mistake, Inglewood is growing.

“As we speak,” Dorn says confidently, as he says everything, “the renaissance is clearly on the move.”

I used to meet John
sometimes for coffee and our many heated chats at a place
called the Howling Monk Jazz and Coffee Bar. It was on a big corner at the north
end of Market Street, the still-alive part of downtown that I would frequent because
of the Big 5, a decent photo place run by Koreans, and the Monk. The Monk was
big and airy, accented with bamboo blinds and filled to its high ceiling with
jazz music and the wonderfully pressing, perpetual smell of gourmet coffee brewing
somewhere behind the counter. A water fountain burbled outside on a small plaza,
where people would lounge or read on wooden park benches. The Monk’s owner, Kenneth
Moore, would often join us, at least in conversation. Moore is the aging hippie
of the Black Panther set — 50-ish, bushy beard, partial to wearing cotton button-down
shirts and suede loafers that look infinitely more hip than the endless reinterpretations
put out by the Gap and Banana Republic. He is thoughtful and reflective, but with
a robust sense of humor that he’s needed to get him through the ordeal of losing
his business.

The Monk closed more than two years ago, after Inglewood convinced Moore that
he was just what they needed to help bring Market Street back to life as part
of the revitalization program launched in 2000. After some thinking, Moore took
them up on it; like others, he harbored a dream of doing well for himself and
doing some good in the community he’s lived in for the past 30 years. He had quit
his cozy accounting job at Paramount Studios to start a line of specialty coffee,
and now he had a chance to go for broke with a restaurant where he could wed coffee
to his other great passion, live jazz.

Moore says he was sold on the whole package — coffee, jazz, community enrichment, black culture, music, revitalization and empowerment. And Inglewood had actually shown him plans for what was officially called the Market Street Renaissance, the first time Moore had ever seen any kind of vision of Inglewood committed to paper. “They painted such a beautiful picture,” he says, slightly incredulously. “They had this brochure of Market that really looked like the Third Street Promenade — theaters, restaurants. And they said it would be a priority for the city.”

But it wasn’t. Part of it was timing — the Howling Monk opened barely three months after 9/11, when small businesses in big cities that relied on tourism started to seriously feel the pinch. Part of it was simply that Moore, by his own admission, was a novice restaurateur who realized too late in the game that he was woefully undercapitalized. But Inglewood also failed him, bigtime. The shrubs and streetlamps came, but no more businesses; it was like setting a table for dinner guests who never arrived. The big boxes on Century Boulevard started going up in earnest, entirely overshadowing Market Street as a development priority and a sales-tax base. Moore got behind on his city-sponsored business loan and couldn’t get his phone calls to City Hall returned. At the Monk’s farewell concert, where the walls shivered with deliriously improvisational jazz and throngs of supporters who lived well beyond Inglewood, nobody from City Hall showed up. That haunts Moore the most.

“When I opened, they were all there for the photo ops,” he says. “In the end, with very few exceptions, they all stayed away.”

They all stayed away from taking any blame, too; Jesse Lewis, Inglewood’s community-development director, took the wide historical angle and cited bad economic conditions and “retail leakage” — Inglewood residents going out of town to buy Gucci loafers they can’t get here — as the culprits responsible for Market’s decline. He also waxed hopeful about a Market comeback as a mecca of sit-down restaurants, clubs and cultural attractions, though he was vague about a timeline: “As you get into the next 15 years,” he says, “that’s what we want to do.”

After that, I started frequenting another place not far from there, A Cultural Affair Coffeehouse on La Brea. It’s on the northern, moneyed edge of town, the pocket with the greatest concentration of longtime white residents and fairly recent arrivals looking for the best real estate value for their money in a market still going mad. They are a generation removed from those who resisted flight 40 years ago and never left.

This part of La Brea is pedestrian friendly and the most picturesque business scene in Inglewood: Besides the coffeehouse, there’s a seafood restaurant, a Cajun bistro, a hip boutique, and an equally hip shoe store and shoe-repair place that’s worth wandering into for the antique décor alone — a passion of the owner. There are the ubiquitous beauty salons too, but North La Brea feels on the verge in a way that Market Street, and even Century Boulevard, do not. It is homegrown but high-aspiring, a smallish place with big ideas just as Inglewood itself used to be. Like the Monk, A Cultural Affair strives to be more than a coffeehouse. It sells African goods and has hosted a street bazaar, film screenings, spoken-word nights and special events. Like the Monk, it wants to be a successful business and something more.

Co-owner Margo LaDrew is a pragmatic visionary, someone who has great faith in La Brea but almost no faith that Inglewood shares the feeling. Like others, she indicts not just Inglewood for this, but black communities everywhere that find it so impossible to make things good right where they are — in other words, to be a community in the fundamental Webster’s sense of the word.

“This is a black place with no cultural anything, no vision for itself as destination, and a pathological inability to finish anything it starts,” says LaDrew, taking a break on a hot afternoon. LaDrew is tall and striking, with a husky voice and a dark ponytail pulled straight back on her head. She knows Moore and empathizes with his struggle. “The city left him out to rot on Market,” she says flatly. “They did things backward.” But for her, as is true for a lot of us around here, hope creeps eternal. It’s the earthquake theory of life — every time something doesn’t happen increases the likelihood of it happening the next time. Inglewood could shake things up, could do the right thing. “If the city could just focus people coming here, point out where they can go with signs or something . . .” LaDrew looks out of her window at the other shops as she speaks, imagining. “A couple of crosswalks, maybe. Traffic lights. That’d be great.”

LaDrew doesn’t ask for much. None of us do, even John, who rages on only because he thinks the community’s got nothing to lose; the moment he sees evidence of a vision, even a modest one, I know he’ll stop. He will be as eager to praise Inglewood as he has been to bury it. Most people in Inglewood are careful to do neither, like my neighbors who gather at block-club meetings each month. After roll call and an abbreviated social hour, the host goes through agenda items: dues, plans for a party, money collected for somebody down the street who had a death in the family. Then new business: a low-grade supermarket coming to Crenshaw — all right, a ghetto supermarket — taking over the lease of an established one that left unceremoniously, without so much as a thank-you. A gas station that’s gotten dangerous at night. A long-abandoned building on Imperial that’s become a nuisance, but the owner, who lives somewhere on the Westside, won’t sell it or tear it down.

Here is where we could take a position, put our foot down, offer a plan: Instead, I feel the bright living room start to button up, a chill wind gusting through, and then somebody mumbles that we have to keep that stuff over there in the Bottoms from coming over here. Property values and all. Nods, murmurs, a few grave looks, as if we’re Roman senators voting on what to do about a colony giving us more trouble than it’s worth. I understand trying to keep these lines in the sand; I’m a homeowner, too, and everything that means.

But the truth is that we all live in the sand. We all have one eye fondly on the neighborhood and the other looking somewhere else; it’s like eating in a good restaurant but sitting near the door so that if some untoward shit breaks out you can leave fast, get out. I don’t want to live that way, not here. But after the block club finds its upbeat groove, after the sign-off and the happy rush to the refreshment table, I see in people’s eyes the shadow of a confession: If I could leave, I would. The corollary to that is: If things were where I want them to be, I wouldn’t want to leave at all. I think we have to make Inglewood a place you can’t leave, because, frankly, we’re out of places to run to. And anyway, in Inglewood I prefer to walk.

Today I walked around the Forum again, past that 60-acre lot that might get even
bigger with the racetrack likely to get razed a few years down the road. Or if
Wal-Mart rises again, or that hotel in the sky Dorn talks about comes down to
Earth. Or maybe, against all expectations — high, low, ridiculous, nonexistent
— the biggest hole in the ground to date will end up being my next big field of
dreams. That’s the utterly unexpected California, and the Inglewood, that I still
live for.

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