Though it comprises the largest concentration of affluent African-Americans in the West, the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw area has struggled for decades to get the kinds of goods and services that are standard in white neighborhoods of similar wealth.
But recently the community seemed to be turning a corner. Key businesses were opening. Investment was starting to flow. With new restaurants and music clubs, Crenshaw was gaining some regional recognition as a center for night life and culture.
And now this.
Last week, the Crenshaw district was one the areas hardest hit in the wave of violence that swept Los Angeles after the not guilty verdicts of four police officers in the beating of Rodney G. King.
Scores of businesses were looted, burned or both--including supermarkets, fast food outlets, clothing and video stores, and medical and legal offices. Among the prominent casualties were three Boys Markets, at least three Thrifty drugstores, a Wherehouse records, the Aquarian Bookshop, a Fedco department store and a Footlocker shoe store.
Looters also hit the Broadway store that anchors the $120-million Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a source of community pride. The new Lucky supermarket, a symbol of the area's resurgence when it opened last month with great fanfare, escaped damage.
"This has had a devastating impact on this community," said Joe Gardner, president of the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners Assn. "This will lower property values over a period of time until the Crenshaw community's commercial area is restored."
The rioters spared many black businesses, whose owners hastily plastered "black-owned" signs on their establishments. Still, black businesses were hit hard. The elegant Jazz Etc. supper club at Santa Barbara Plaza was destroyed. So was the only black-owned Firestone tire store in the nation.
Despite the destruction, Crenshaw area leaders this week voiced hope that their area has a strong chance to turn around quickly because it is anchored in a solidly middle-class community.
"From a business standpoint, the Crenshaw area is very strong and it will have no problem being rebuilt," said Craig Sasser, executive director of the 200-member Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce. "We have the demographics to make a strong recovery."
The important thing, he said, is that the community be given an opportunity to participate in the recovery. "Whatever public funds are made available we want to make sure that people inside the community benefit," he said.
Already there have been encouraging signs from several corporations that had been planning investments in the area.
The Baldwin Theater and the Kansas City-based AMC theater chain are going ahead with a joint venture to open an eight-screen theater complex in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, said Gregory Boyd, a spokesman for Economic Resources Inc., a Lynwood-based nonprofit corporation that owns the Baldwin Theater on La Brea. This theater, the only one in the area, was untouched by the violence.
Fred Bruning, a partner with Alexander Haagen Co., which developed the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, said he, too, sees reason for hope.
"There have to be more stores, more jobs and more black-owned businesses in this trading area," he said. "People are waking up. This is not 1965 (after the Watts riot) when there was a lot of talk and no action. This time there is an important point to be made."
Santa Barbara Plaza, across Marlton Avenue from the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, is a sprawling, 23-acre shopping center that is home to about 250 businesses, including clothing stores, hair salons, cleaners, restaurants, pharmacies and offices for lawyers and doctors. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency wants to refurbish the shopping center, which has the largest concentration of black-owned businesses in the city.
Smith Food and Drug Inc. of Salt Lake City is still considering the shopping center as a potential site for a giant food store, said Rohit Joshi, who represents the chain. "We are looking at three or four locations in the central city," he said. "We haven't lost interest."
The predominantly black Crenshaw area is a mixture of affluent and low-income neighborhoods. Some of the homes along winding roads with panoramic views in Baldwin Hills and View Park are valued at more than $500,000. At the base of these hillside neighborhoods is Baldwin Village, a low-income apartment community which has a history of problems with drugs and gangs.
As more Latinos have moved into South Los Angeles, the Crenshaw area is one of the few remaining communities in the city which has remained predominantly African-American. With its restaurants, shops and clubs, the area has in many ways become the modern-day Central Avenue, which in the 1940s was a hub of African-American cultural activity.