As I listened to speakers on the “Creative Industry Business Development, Tourism Markets, Branding, Marketing, Event Management, Business Alliances, and Program Partnerships” panel at the Leimert Park Design Charrette this past January, one question kept bothering me:
Why is so much discussion being directed at marketing Leimert Park to the international arena?
It makes perfect sense that they would be thinking big, of course.
As the area undergoes changes courtesy of the new rail line, the Leimert Park station that will (indirectly) connect the Crenshaw and Leimert communities to LAX, and the new development that will likely follow, there is the potential to draw tourists to the area, deepen relationships with sister cities or communities, or even attract innovative investors looking to build new partnerships with local artists and cultural care-takers.
Make no mistake — all of that is incredibly important. It would be wonderful to see Leimert take its rightful place on the map of must-see destinations for being a powerful creative community, the cultural beating heart of the black community, and an important African marketplace.
But Leimert Park, at least in my experience, is still not a particularly well-known quantity to many Angelenos.
While it is on people’s radar because of the construction of the Crenshaw Line, because it is part of “South Los Angeles,” it is vulnerable to being associated with the many stigmas that unfortunately come with that label. Even for many of those who do know something about the community and its history, Leimert’s location within South L.A. still acts as a deterrent — people are afraid they will have to travel through “dangerous” or “sketchy” areas to get there.
Part of the reason that it has been hard to dispel such outdated notions and create a more positive image for the area is that, until recently, Leimert has not been particularly adept at getting the word about what it has to offer the city.
For residents living in the area or people that regularly frequent places like the independent, black-owned Eso Won bookstore or artistic hubs like the KAOS Network, the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, The World Stage, or the new Papillion Art Gallery, keeping up with cultural events and happenings probably isn’t too hard.
Someone like myself, who loves the neighborhood but can’t be there all the time, tends to find out about exciting events a week or two after they have happened, when stopping by to see friends or to follow up on a story.
People completely unfamiliar with the area likely never hear about what it has to offer at all. And, despite the fact that so many of the musical, literary, and artistic greats in the African-American community have come through and/or been shaped by the neighborhood, an interested observer would be hard-pressed to find a central source of information detailing that history (although, this documentary and Erin Aubry Kaplan’s work at KCET help fill in some gaps).
That all is beginning to change.
Since the design charrette, stakeholders have been meeting regularly to find ways to make the ideas expressed at the January event bear fruit. One of the approaches has been to build on the success of the Leimert Park art walk (held the last Sunday of the month) and designate the last weekend of the month as “Weekends in Leimert.” Special performances or events underscoring Leimert’s diverse cultural offerings are timed to fall during that period and information about them is now centralized on their webpage.
Another strategy has been to seek ways to enhance the pedestrian environment through street and façade improvements in the Village area. To this end, stakeholders are currently working on a People St. (an LADOT program that helps communities convert spaces into parklets, plazas, or bike corrals) application to turn the section of 43rd Place in front of the Vision Theater into a plaza.
While community leaders like KAOS Network founder and artist Ben Caldwell would prefer to see a community-specific design for the plaza — including an option to paint the street with something other than the polka dots or stripes the city offers (below) — they are very interested in the potential of regenerating some of the street life culture Leimert used to enjoy.
This coming weekend will see a marriage of these two objectives, as Leimert puts together a series of events, including a Pop-Up Plaza, at the art walk celebrating innovation, art, and the pedestrian environment.
At 1 p.m., Crenshaw WALKS will be gathering at the KAOS Network for a meet-and-greet where they will discuss potential projects the group could work on to promote mobility in the area and bring attention to community-specific mobility needs and aspirations.
At 2 p.m. (til 5 p.m.), Caldwell, together with Professor François Bar and Karl Baumann of USC, will host a “Tactical Media” workshop on the “plaza” along 43rd Pl. The workshop will invite participants to envision innovative ways to re-purpose and re-integrate obsolete street furniture into the design and life of a public space. The main attractions will be objects already re-purposed by USC students and members of the Leimert community, including the “Sankofa RED” pay phone, a “beats” bench, an advertising display-cum-interactive art and poetry canvas, an L.A. Times newspaper box fitted with a window to Leimert’s artistic history, and a social gardening planter project.
Later that afternoon and evening, you can visit local vendors on the plaza offering jewelry, lotions, incense, art, and more, meander through the open galleries, honor Women’s History Month with “Womun: Art and Power” — a celebration of song, dance, music, poetry, and healing — at the Vision Theater at 3 p.m., see “I Wanna Be Loved: Stories of Dinah Washington” at 4 p.m. at the Barbara Morrison PAC, or join in the Sisters of Jazz jam session at the World Stage, starting at 9 p.m.
If you want to take it easy, you can stick around KAOS, where you’ll likely run into local fixtures, Wo’se Kofi (a musician and gourmet who always has a basket of vegan treats) and Kyle Verbs (a rapper and host of the eclectic musical experiment known as Bananas) and be treated to spoken word from the young poets that often gather there in the afternoon.
Or, you could just hang out at the drum circle and dance to your heart’s content.
Hopefully, things like the branding and social media efforts the community is making, the new studio/community center and art gallery Mark Bradford is building in the Village, the ongoing partnership between KAOS and USC, and the CicLAvia hub Leimert will host at the end of the year will make Leimert Park more accessible to Angelenos and convince them to give it another look.
The international tourists and investors spoken of at the design charrette will eventually matter for the dollars and eyeballs they will bring into the community. But, for the area to be able to grow and thrive on its own terms now, with its artistic and cultural heritage acting as the foundation for the future and not as a nicely preserved snapshot into the past, it is important that the rest of the city also be convinced of the value of investing in and cultivating the talents of a predominantly African-American community, its artists, and its entrepreneurs.
So, head for Leimert this weekend and check out one of the few spaces in South L.A. where art and artists of color have such a safe haven. Talk to the stakeholders that are working to ensure that the streets will once again be their canvas and see firsthand why it is one of the most vibrant places to be in L.A. right now.
You won’t be sorry.