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Leimert Park: Big changes for LA's historic heart of African American culture

Sherri Franklin, an urban designer and part of the Vision 20/20 Initiative, in front of the Vision Theater in Leimert Park.
Sherri Franklin, an urban designer and part of the Vision 20/20 Initiative, in front of the Vision Theater in Leimert Park.
Dorian Merina/KPCC

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Leimert Park has long been a cultural and artistic hub for African-Americans in Los Angeles, home to jazz clubs, cafés and art galleries. Now big changes are coming to the neighborhood. There's a new metro stop, the multimillion-dollar renovation of a historic theater and the conversion of a main thoroughfare into a pedestrian walkway. 

"It's so exciting," said Sherri Franklin, an urban designer and one of the leaders of a group overseeing the revitalization, called the 20/20 Vision Initiative. She said the plans are tied to the legacy of the area.

"Culture, and the economy of culture and art, is a driving force here in Leimert," said Franklin. "The plans, such as the renovation of the historic Vision Theater, first built in 1931, aim to draw on that." 

On a recent visit to the theater, she pointed out the original terrazzo tiles beneath the neon marquee, an indication that the first phase of the renovations is complete.

"Beautiful," said Franklin, looking out from the lobby, where the curb had already been painted red,  ready for a broad walk street in the main business district. "It is changing."

Crenshaw Line expansion

Another big change is a planned Metro stop just a block from the Vision Theater, where these days a chain link fence borders the street, marking where the entrance to the underground station will be. It's part of a $2 billion expansion on the 8.5-mile line that will run south from Exposition Boulevard. It's expected to open in 2019, according to the MTA.

The station came to Leimert after a long fight led by business owners and community leaders.

"It’s on the move again and it’s going to be very good," said Sika, a jewelry maker and sculptor, who owns an African art shop on Degnan Boulevard.

Dwight Trible, director of  The World Stage, a performance space a few doors down from Sika's, agrees. He said he welcomes the metro station and the potential for more business and foot traffic, but he said he's also concerned about what all that could bring.

"You don’t miss things until it’s gone," said Trible. "The reason that you're coming here in the first place is because Leimert Park was started as a grassroots movement with grassroots artists."

Many of those artists have a home in places like The World Stage, which was founded in 1989 by jazz drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Horace Tapscott and poet Kamau Daáood.

As more people come to the area, Trible said he hopes that legacy will be preserved.

"I pray that they will remember how this thing started and why they are here," said Trible.

Some of that uncertainty is shared by business owners.

On a recent afternoon, James Fugate, the co-owner of the Esowon Bookstore, pointed down the block, where about half the storefronts were closed in the early afternoon. He said the area needed more people and businesses with regular hours.

One store that was open was the Ackee Bamboo Jamaican restaurant, where owner Marlene Sinclair-Beckford sat and looked out over a near-empty room of tables.

"I look forward to the change," said Beckford. "I perceive that the rent will go up, but I strongly believe our business will pick up and we'll be able to cover it."

All of this potential for change raises a deeper question of ownership among African-Americans in Leimert Park and what’s considered progress, said Ben Caldwell, founder of the KAOS Network, a media group and performance space.

"Our community is owned by blacks, but they’re owned by a new sense of what black is. It’s not a BBQ shop, it’s not a beauty shop, it’s high finance and brokering," said Caldwell. "We have to re-look at what black is and black ownership within this 21st century."


Clarification: The Crenshaw/LAX line is an expansion of the overall metro system. The Crenshaw/LAX line itself is scheduled to open in 2019.
Correction: World Stage Executive Director Dwight Trible’s last name was mispelled in the original post of this story. It’s been corrected. KPCC regrets the error.