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Museum in Black Closing, Out of Funds

Culture: Impending loss of Leimert Park Village institution worries merchants.

June 29, 2002|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than 15 years as a tourist draw, a distinctive African American museum is being evicted from its storefront in Leimert Park Village, leaving some merchants concerned about how the departure will affect their efforts to boost tourist traffic in the cultural enclave.

The loss of the Museum in Black--described in the Rough Guide to Los Angeles as "the chief cultural institution" in the village--is seen as a setback to efforts by merchants to attract more tourists and to increase sales in the adjacent art galleries, coffee shops and performance houses.

"People come from out of state or call asking about the museum," said Laura Hendrix, president of the Leimert Park Merchants' Assn. and owner of the Gallery Plus art gallery near the museum.

"We're still in the process of building up the area. And it's catching on." Losing the museum "knocks us down a few notches. We desperately need that kind of business here on the street."

The street is Degnan Boulevard, which runs through the center of the village between 43rd Street and 43rd Place, just east of Crenshaw Boulevard. Over the last 10 years, merchants in the dozen-plus small shops in the village have tried to create a pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining draw with an Afrocentric theme. One of the main drawing cards, merchants said, has been the Museum in Black--an eclectic collection of African American slave and civil-rights era memorabilia.

Brian Breye, owner of the museum, said he was served papers early this week requiring him to leave the space--more than 3,000 square feet full of leg irons, slave posters and Jim Crow signs--by Sunday, after a dispute with the landlord over rent.

Edward MacDaniel, owner of the building that includes the Museum in Black and several other storefronts, said Breye owes him $20,000 in back rent and has been behind in payments off and on for years. Breye countered that the figure is closer to $3,000.

Both men acknowledged that the store, in an area recently spruced up by the city and promoted by the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors' Bureau, could fetch several times the $1,100 per month that Breye has been charged.

"He pays $1,000; I can get $3,000. What would you do?" asked MacDaniel. "I pay $6,000 in insurance costs alone."

Unable to resolve the matter, Breye, known informally as the "Mayor of Leimert Park," spent the week boxing up more than 300 years of African and African American history: masks from Cameroon, intricately carved statues from Mali, grisly photos of Southern U.S. lynchings. At one point he had more than 5,000 pieces shoehorned into the small shop, he said.

"I've spent 39 years collecting African art and memorabilia, slave shackles, posters," he said, his voice trailing off in frustration.

Breye, who has relied largely on donations and proceeds from school tours to keep the place afloat, said the museum has never been a money-maker.

"I've been in the hole since the day I moved in here," he said. "I sell something to pay the rent, to pay the phone, to pay the lights. And if I can't sell something, I scramble around and do odd jobs."

Now, Breye and other community members are scrambling to find storage space for the artifacts and an eventual new home for the museum.

"This will be a loss," said Valerie Holton, owner of Black LA Tours, who has escorted culture-seeking tourists in and out of the museum regularly.

"This was one of the main places that you could go to have a piece of history from the African American perspective. It will affect me tremendously," she said.

While agreeing that the departure represents a loss, Melissa Hayes, director of cultural tourism for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she thinks the momentum already building in the area will continue.

"There are a lot of different things that have happened in the area. The landscape architecture was recognized nationally," Hayes said. "I think the Museum in Black is one of those landmark destinations," she added. "But it's not one store that makes Leimert Park. One store leaving, yes, it's a tremendous loss. But the community has been moving so far along, I don't see that one move making it stop."

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