Los Angeles Neighborhood Struggles with Identity

Residents of Leimert Park, a predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles, are fighting over class interests, commercial development and the best way to preserve a black community.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.

Residential neighborhoods across America are in constant flux. Today, on the final day of our real estate series, we find that the fear of change can tear a neighborhood apart, especially when homeowners, business owners and renters all feel threatened. A case in point, one small Southern California neighborhood where reporter Tony Cox begins our story.

TONY COX reporting:

Leimert Park, a tree lined area of neatly combed lawns and World War II-era houses is not nearly was well known as its larger surrounding neighborhood in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. But both areas just south and west of downtown combine to make up one of the last predominately black middle class enclaves in the city and one of the largest in the nation. With an 82 percent black population and unemployment rate below six percent, annual household income here averages more then $33,000. Home prices topped the half million dollar mark

But Leimert Park is also the battleground for a land war that is pitting black residents against each other over what their neighborhood has and should become. One part of the conflict, a big part, involves older homeowners who are not necessarily opposed to commercial development.

Mr. ROLAND HOUSTON(ph): What they don't want, from what I gather, they don't want any type of low cost housing.

COX: Roland Houston is a retired teacher who has lived in the same house in Leimert for 36 years.

Mr. HOUSTON: That's what they're afraid I think, they're going to build housing units.

COX: So it's not that they are afraid of the white people coming in. They don't want poor black people coming in.

Mr. HOUSTON: That's the message that I get.

COX: Red and white Save Leimert signs have popped up all over the neighborhoods since the City Redevelopment Agency recently proposed to drastically alter Leimert's business district, where small black-owned shops are a source of pride, if not profit. A feasibility study included ideas for building new housing units above commercial properties, possible high-end condo development and mixed-use retail, including national brand name stores.

But the CRA's ideas were immediately met with a howl of protest primarily from those fearing that they would be displaced by big business and from those afraid the soul of Leimert would be eventually be lost to gentrification.

(Soundbite of running water)

With its centerpiece city park and water fountain and an adjacent strip of Afrocentric coffee shops, eateries, art galleries and night spots, Leimert Park has long been the heart of the community's cultural pulse. But that pulse has weakened in recent years as empty parking lots and lost business signaled the transition Leimert find it self mired in.

And for the 32,000 residents here, the widening gap between home and business owners and a younger, more diverse population of renters has prevented agreement over what the neighborhood should look and feel like. Twenty-nine year old Jasmine Canick(ph) doesn't live here but shops here regularly and says she doesn't want the ethnic flavor of Leimert changed for what she calls chain store aesthetics.

Ms. JASMINE CANICK: So if you take this area and then you try to develop it and next thing you know there's McDonalds and Starbucks and you know all of these different businesses, that's going to take away from the feel of this neighborhood and what this neighborhood is all about.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) one and two and three and four. Stop.

COX: But business, if not big, at least bigger is what Leimert needs, say Erwin and Lula Washington who run the internationally renowned Lula Washington Dance Theatre on Crenshaw Boulevard. Just across the street is a new shopping strip including Starbucks, Big 5, Denny's, even a Goodwill store.

Ms. LULU WASHINGTON (Owner, Lula Washington Dance Theatre): I do costumes for my dance company. I would have to get in my car - and believe it or not I shop at Goodwill for some of those things - I would have to get in car and drive way to Wilshire or to Venice Boulevard to find a Goodwill store. Now there's one right across the street. So I think all of these things are pluses for other professionals in the community that need to have a certain type of lifestyle. It's right there.

Mr. ERWIN WASHINGTON (Owner, Lula Washington Dance Theatre): One more thing you can add about that, when you go into the stores across the street, the Denny's is owned by a black man. His grandkids is here. Quiznos is owned by a black woman who is part of the community. Magic owns the Starbuck's. And black people are working in Goodwill. They're working in the bank. They are providing jobs that black people have, which is unusual. Very often businesses come into our community and we don't work in the businesses in our own community. Other people work there.

(Soundbite of siren)

COX: Crime is a fact of urban life and Leimert Park is not exception, although police have stepped up their presence here. We found several area business owners reluctant to speak on the record about the controversial land proposals. And those who did would say only that they're waiting to hear more from the CRA, which is holding several community meetings this summer.

In the end, Leimert will change. Proponents on both sides of the Save Leimert issue seem to agree. The only question is whether the change will be for the better.

Ms. WASHINGTON: We cannot allow ourselves to be a race unless we don't step up to the plate with the jobs. That means our kids have to be trained. They have to know how to work. And people come in there with the right qualifications so that they can get the jobs.

COX: For NPR News, I'm Tony Cox in Los Angeles.

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