Where, Exactly, Does Destination Crenshaw Take Us?
W. Yusef Doucet
Destination Crenshaw breaks ground April 2019. The planners have not effectively explained how the creation of an open-air art museum and “cultural experience” will encourage economic activity in the designated area. Although the project has identified “Community Partners,” grassroots neighborhood organizers have been shutout of the decision-making processes for a project that will dramatically alter the character of the main business corridor running through the neighborhood, Crenshaw Boulevard from 48th Street to 60th Street. Although privately funded, the project requires the cooperation of the Eighth District Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose first responsibility is to his constituency, including the residents of the Angeles Mesa and Hyde Park neighborhoods, whose wishes the councilman must consider if Destination Crenshaw will ever have the chance to become a path to an economically thriving local destination. As it stands now, the Destination Crenshaw project leaves the pathway to economic empowerment in the Angeles Mesa and Hyde Park neighborhoods unclear and uncertain.
To begin, the Destination Crenshaw project planners have not yet successfully explained how the installation of what they describe as an open-air art museum and “cultural experience” will translate to economic rejuvenation of the stretch of the Crenshaw Corridor the project has staked out for the project. Members of the community can and do appreciate the value of public art and beautification of the street, especially insofar as the project offers the community the opportunity to speak for itself, to represent itself, and to see itself accurately and authentically represented, to tell its story and hear its story. How does that rejuvenate business? How does the project offer support for the existing businesses operating between 48th Street and 60th Street? Does that project have a plan to encourage local ownership or the organizing of business collectives among the residents of the Park Mesa neighborhoods? Does the cultural experience refer to a growth in art galleries, performance spaces and restaurants? The pattern across the country indicates that the infusion of these sorts of businesses into older neighborhoods often accelerates the rent hikes associated with gentrification. Destination Crenshaw is supposed to be a response to gentrification and a bulwark against it by stamping the neighborhood as definitively Black, but it may instead ultimately facilitate gentrification.
In addition to the uncertain economic benefits to the Park Mesa neighborhoods, the Destination Crenshaw project planners have not sufficiently communicated with the residents whom the project will directly affect, despite the presence of “community partners” associated with the project. On their website, http://www.destinationcrenshaw.la, the planners explicitly describe the project as a response to the decision to run the new Crenshaw metro rail line above ground as it passes through the Park Mesa stretch of the Corridor, a decision fiercely opposed by the local community, to no avail. The planners thus propose the Destination Crenshaw project as a social justice effort and a bulwark to protect the integrity of this Black enclave in Los Angeles and place an indelible stamp of Blackness on the community to insure the fact of our presence here through strategically located and themed public art installations that will include multimedia documentation of the Black history of Los Angeles. The planners declare that the project is by Black people for Black people, an effort to celebrate and strengthen Black rootedness in the last remaining majority Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In fact, they have acquired the support of several reputable respected community artists and activists as community partners who do lend credibility to the project, including Ben Caldwell of Kaos Network, Ron Finley – the Gangsta Gardener, Berlinda Fontenot Jamerson of the Museum of African American Art, and Karen Mack from L.A. Commons. Nonetheless, an information gap belies the validity of that community partnership. Apparently, many local residents and businesses remain largely unaware or only loosely familiar with the project, despite local newspaper coverage, in The Sentinel, for example. Conversely, the community organizations who are aware and informed, namely the Hyde Park Organizational Partnership for Empowerment (HOPE), the Park Mesa Neighborhood Council, and the African Firefighters in Benevolent Association Center (AFIBA) have received dismissive responses, stonewalling, and what is effectively disinvitations to planning meetings through scheduling at times and in places that make it difficult for working class community members to attend, despite the impact these decisions may have on the look, feel and affordability Angeles Mesa and Hyde Park.
If the community does not know that a major public space development that can dramatically alter their neighborhoods, whether for the good or the bad, that responsibility belongs to Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and his office. The councilman can make his mark with this project, and maybe that is his hope. However, a councilman who comes from a community organizing background as Councilman Harris-Dawson does should certainly recognize the necessity to communicate openly with his constituency, to have his people on the ground canvassing the local residents and businesses about their vision for the neighborhood, to take meetings with community organizations such as HOPE and AFIBA to understand their plans for development, plans they have designed and redesigned since the 1992 uprising, to ensure that rather than governing from above, the council district enjoys a participatory process at the deepest levels. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the Councilman Harris-Dawson to seek community partners who not only live in the Hills, but also in the avenues and streets of the flatlands. To his credit, the councilman did this past Wednesday, February 20, attend a HOPE meeting, upon invitation, with members of his office and representatives from the Destination Crenshaw project. They took the opportunity to make a presentation about the project. Pointed concerns were raised by community members on the need to be included in the planning of their own community, rather than Destination Crenshaw community partners making decisions without the people who have been working on quality of life issues in Hyde Park for the past 25 years. The need for economic empowerment through community ownership and better support for current businesses was stressed, also, the need to support the community’s plan for its future with technical assistance. The Councilman left with a promise to HOPE that it would be better represented in the Destination Crenshaw Community Partners. He also promised to provide a liaison from his office to work with the Hyde Park Community Plan.
To conclude, the Destination Crenshaw project, at its current stage of development, with a groundbreaking looming in April, does not show a pathway to economic revitalization in the neighborhood or along the corridor. Instead, that pathway remains unclear and uncertain. The project has that potential, and the planners are no doubt sincere, but sincerity will not help reinvigorate the existing businesses, nor will sincerity offer new models of business and property ownership for community members, such as the formation of cooperatives with the assistance of Eighth Council District office. The promised “street-scaping” that will change the look of Crenshaw from 48th Street to 60th Street and the installation of an open-air museum will not slow the pace of gentrification. They may accelerate the pace. So, if the project aims to keep the Park Mesa neighborhoods (and adjacent Leimert Park) predominantly Black neighborhoods by establishing the Black presence through monuments and new pocket parks, the project may instead be a record of what once was, of who used to be here, rather than establishing a solid and deeply rooted permanence.