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Neighbors Join Forces to Fight Renewal Plan

Some in Leimert Park fear adding housing units to the village would harm its status as a important center of black culture.

April 25, 2006|Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writer

Red-lettered signs urging "Save Leimert!" adorn the front lawns in a Southwest Los Angeles neighborhood.

The slogan on the signs forming a path into Leimert Park Village, widely regarded as the heart of black culture in the city, harks back to an earlier campaign. It was part of an effort a few years ago to keep rising rents from threatening the jazz clubs and art shops that are hallmarks of the village.

Today, the slogan signals opposition to a city plan that could include housing and businesses aimed at breathing new economic life into the village, wedged roughly between Crenshaw and Leimert boulevards, north of 48th Street.

In February, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency began working on a $200,000 master plan that many residents fear would turn their village into an unappetizing smorgasbord of shops, condominiums and apartment complexes. They said the housing would crowd the village.

"It's almost like you've got to save yourself from yourself," said Harold Burnett, 35, who bought a house in Leimert Park three years ago.

Over the past couple of months, Burnett and hundreds of other residents have flocked to community meetings regarding the master plan, where architects presented project models. Residents said they're all for more businesses, just not homes.

"It wasn't the people who abandoned Leimert Park; it was the businesses," said Robert Rubio, who shelled out $1,300 to print the "Save Leimert!" signs that dot the front lawns.

Besides adding to traffic and other congestion, residents say housing would weaken the village's historical and cultural significance. But some also have hinted at concerns about the "quality of people" who might move into the added housing, which presumably would cost less than the homes currently in the area.

But Ricardo Noguera, a regional administrator for the Community Redevelopment Agency, said that his experience in other communities tells him the resistance stems largely from well-heeled residents looking to gentrify their neighborhood and keep low-income families out.

"It's absolutely about gentrification," Noguera said. "There are some folks out there who are trying to put fear in other folks, so that nothing is done."

Noguera said the redevelopment agency would work to preserve the "diverse income-base living there."

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who represents the area and called for the master plan, said he is baffled by the opposition, which he believes is a result of confusion about the status of the plans. While some housing has been proposed, no decisions have been made, he said.

"People are opposing something they haven't seen," said Parks, who added that the city is still in the process of taking community views.

"This master plan is being done at what we thought was a request from the community," Parks said.

He and agency officials said their main goal is to throw a lifeline to foundering businesses in the village. This could take the form of attracting grocery stores, pharmacies and other basic businesses to complement the culture-oriented establishments that dominate the village.

The city already has worked with merchants to rehabilitate more than 30 storefronts along Degnan Boulevard, the main commercial street, and establish a Leimert Park Walk of Fame, known as "Sankofa Passage." In the African language of Akan, Sankofa means returning to the past in order to go forward.

The city is also working with community activists to make $9 million in renovations to Vision Theater, the village's historic movie house on 43rd Street.

Parks said he'd like to turn the village into a place that residents across Los Angeles would want to frequent daily.

"We don't want a person to come to the village to buy an Afro-centric piece of material and then come back six months later," he said. "We have to get people something to come for every night."

In the last five years, local institutions such as the Museum in Black began shutting down. Noguera said at least four village properties have become vacant in the last 14 months.

Longtime merchants and residents attribute the exodus to rising rents. A number of them oppose redevelopment, fearing that it would pull both them and the African American roots out of the village.

"They want to redevelop the village into a Beverly Hills plaza," said Mary Kimbrough, who co-owns Zambezi Bazaar on Degnan Boulevard. "We already have a very nice village, where people can listen to black poetry, play jazz and get their hair braided."

Kimbrough joined Rubio and a dozen others recently, handing out "Save Leimert!" signs.

She waved at honking cars and yelled, "Revolution! People before profits, not profits before people!"

Redevelopment opponents have banded together as the Save Leimert Park Campaign and established a website

Group members have also spent at least $3,000 to print signs and mail notices of upcoming public meetings.

They plan to send a petition to city officials this week to demand that all master plan discussions be suspended until they can come up with their own.

Greg King, a spokesman for the group, said they've gathered at least 2,500 signatures.

"It's not a matter of gentrification," said Rubio, an antique furniture dealer whose father once delivered newspapers in the village. "It's a matter of people who've worked hard to preserve the neighborhood and being told by the redevelopment agency that their neighborhood needs to be reinvented."

But Noguera warned that businesses will continue to leave the village if the city doesn't step in and at least consider all types of possible development.

"If we do nothing with that area now," Noguera said, "it dies."

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