The Metropolitan Transit Authority votes today on the proposed Crenshaw light rail line. Plans call for a stop at busy Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, but not at nearby Leimert Park Village, which has seen better days.
African-American leaders in Los Angeles and elsewhere are outraged. They say Leimert is the historic cultural core of black L.A. and deserves a stop.
“The times that we spent in jazz clubs, talking on the corner, philosophy, politics, wrestling with the God question. And here we are wrestling with the rail question," said African American studies professor Cornell West of Princeton University, who showed up at a news conference in Leimert Park on Wednesday to add his voice for the station. He recalled spending time amid the cluster of black-owned businesses in Leimert Park Village.
The rail question is whether Metro will build a Leimert Park stop on its 8.5 mile Crenshaw line.
Leimert Park is tucked at the base of the Baldwin Hills in south L.A. It is one of the few remaining predominantly black areas in the region. Luminaries including Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley all called it home.
Radio and TV talk show host Tavis Smiley has his studios in Leimert. Smiley, who joined West at the news conference, decried plans that don’t include that stop.
“This is an old story in America. An old story where when it comes to transportation communities of color get left out," Smiley said.
L.A. County Supervisor and Metro board member Zev Yaroslavsky gets a little heated when asked about a Leimert Park stop because the $1.7 billion Crenshaw line is already over budget.
“This is just highway robbery," Yaroslavsky said. "It’s an attempt to take money that doesn’t belong to the Crenshaw Line from another project where the money does belong.”
Yaroslavsky doesn't oppose a Leimert Park station, but said supporters must be willing to give up something else on the Crenshaw line.
The supervisor referred to restrictions on Measure R transit money and Metro board policy when he argued against putting more money into the Crenshaw line.
Black leaders want $120 million for the Leimert Park stop and more than $200 million to improve the safety of the line by placing 12 blocks of it underground instead of at street level near Crenshaw High School.
“This is how the MTA got into trouble in the 1990s," Yaroslavsky said. "This is why the original subway project got so expensive. There was no cost control. There was no accountability.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sits on the Metro board and whose district includes the Leimert Park area, said money is available from Red Line improvement projects, highway transportation funds and other areas. He rejects Yaroslavksy’s argument that the board can’t shift that money.
"Those who argue that are those who make that point until it’s a project that they want to do," he said.
Ridley-Thomas argues that Crenshaw could get money from future projects, which can in turn draw from future federal and other allocations.
“The important thing to understand is that this project is ready to go. We’re first out of the chute.”
Along the streets of Leimert Park Village, anxious merchants are trying to stay afloat until the light rail line comes through.
“It’s critical to the businesses here because if we don’t have a stop here, people are going to pass our village by," said Jackie Ryan, an owner of the Zambezi Bazaar card and gift shop, and head of the area merchants association.
The campaign for a Leimert Park station, and for placing parts of the Crenshaw line underground, has galvanized influential blacks.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a longtime rival of Ridley-Thomas, is pressuring the Metro board on the issue.