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Business Owners Debate 'African Village' Designation : Commerce: Backers say it would give needed identity to the district. Some think the proposed area should be more narrowly focused.

June 17, 1993|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CRENSHAW — Despite the success of many African-themed and black-owned shops in the Crenshaw District, Melva Parhams says the area is suffering from a severe identity crisis.

Parhams, a longtime South Los Angeles resident and community activist, has been working for two years to re-christen the Crenshaw District as "African International Village." The designation, she said, will not only stimulate cultural pride in the predominantly African-American area, but also encourage economic growth.

"Black people have suffered from so many negative stereotypes, it's time to claim a place of our own," Parhams said. "Having a district identified as being run for and by black people would be a terrific thing for the community."

Parhams is president of the African International Village Assn., a group founded in 1990 to promote black cultural awareness. Parhams, who is also an organizer of Crenshaw's annual Kwanzaa parade, changed the focus of the association in 1991 to establishing a black cultural and business district.

The proposed boundaries of the village are Crenshaw Boulevard between Florence Avenue and Adams Boulevard, including Leimert Park and the area just west of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza bounded by Coliseum Street and Santa Rosalia Drive.

Parhams points to areas such as Chinatown, Koreatown and Olvera Street as examples of how associating a geographic area with a particular culture or ethnicity promotes self-esteem and attracts outside business.

"Of course, there are other nationalities within the district, and they're welcome to be part of it," Parhams said. "But the thrust is definitely African."

For the past two years, Parhams and the association's 19 other members have addressed community and church groups, circulated petitions among business owners and lobbied City Council members and the planning department. Although Parhams has gathered more than 3,000 signatures and letters of endorsement from a cross-section of groups, including the mayor's office, the city has yet to move toward renaming the Crenshaw District.

Although business owners generally approved of the idea, some had reservations about its scope and feasibility. "The village area should be more contained," said Brian Breye, owner of Museum in Black in Leimert Park. "We're too widely dispersed as black people to call the area she's proposing African. There needs to be more community input."

Crenshaw Cafe owner Jamil Shabazz said he hopes the village would encourage blacks of all nationalities to visit black-owned businesses. "I'm all for a plan where blacks can come together," he said. "We need to realize that economically, all of us--Jamaican, American, Somali or whatever--can have a collective strength."

Carlton Jenkins, president of Founders National Bank, said focusing on a small, well-defined area such as Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park would be the most commercially viable approach. "The concept of the village is good, but you lose cohesiveness when you don't have a smaller area. You want to take four or five blocks and make them an attraction for people after 7 at night. I understand wanting to emphasize the African identity and heritage in the entire Crenshaw area, but from a business standpoint, there have to be boundaries."

Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce President Ted Fortier agreed, saying that although Crenshaw's ethnically diverse population is indeed international, it is not strictly African-descended. But, he said, "the African-themed art shops and institutions along Degnan would be perfect for the village. I endorse that 150%."

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