How a group of Black people is rejuvenating a neighbourhood

  • Living
  • Monday, 17 Jul 2023

West (centre) talking with college students about a new land trust that is aiming to establish a foothold for Black ownership in rapidly gentrifying Leimert Park. Photos: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Tony Jolly sounded tired. When I caught up with him in June, it had only been a few hours since tens of thousands of people had descended on Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighbourhood in the United States to celebrate Juneteenth – and since the much-hyped, multi-block festival that he helped organise for the holiday abruptly went from phenomenal to frightening.

“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he told me wistfully.

Indeed, people were happily crammed shoulder to shoulder next to a stage situated on a narrow block of Degnan Boulevard, a few feet from the entrance to ORA, the cafe Jolly owns with his wife, Tina Amin.

Grammy winner Jazmine Sullivan had been scheduled to perform, but never made it on stage because, according to Jolly, a group of teenagers started lighting firecrackers as a “practical joke”.

Videos circulating on social media – at one point trending nationally – showed people running from what many assumed were gunshots, stepping on each other and knocking over vendor booths in a frantic stampede.

Meanwhile, a McDonald’s got ransacked around the corner. And Amazon Music, which had been livestreaming the festival, cut the feed.

A week later, LA City Council member Heather Hutt vowed to meet with festival organisers, city officials and other stakeholders in her district “to avoid situations like this from happening again”.

In the meantime, the city has put “on hold” permits for another major concert in Leimert Park. It had been scheduled for the first weekend in July by another group of organisers promoting reparations, and would’ve featured The Game, Eric Benet and Sounds of Blackness. It’s now scheduled for August.

Jolly and his wife, Amin, inspecting recent renovations at their cafe ORA in Leimert Park.Jolly and his wife, Amin, inspecting recent renovations at their cafe ORA in Leimert Park.

So while the Juneteenth festival was, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious and compelling events to happen in South LA in years, it now seems a small miracle that no one who attended was seriously injured.

What, if anything, will come of that unfortunate burst of chaos and the city’s attempts to correct it remains to be seen. But at the very least, the good and bad of what happened hints at the amazing possibilities and potential challenges ahead for a little-known effort to transform a block of Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park into a lively cultural destination.

One where Black-owned businesses that serve the needs of the community can thrive in beautifully designed commercial buildings that are also Black owned. And where events of all sizes and types happen regularly.

Led by two separate groups of Black Angelenos, their complementary missions could create a model for other neighbourhoods of colour – from Boyle Heights to West Adams – that are also facing a triple threat of gentrification, displacement and erasure.

Few are more convinced of this than Jolly.

When we met two years ago, he and Akil West, owner of the clothing boutique Sole Folks, had just decided to purchase the dilapidated building at Degnan Boulevard and West 43rd Street that houses their businesses and several others, including the now-shuttered Eso Won Books.

I wrote about what happened next in a series of columns. It could be a case study on the difficulties of buying back the ‘hood, Nipsey Hussle-style, in an American city.

A man reading a newspaper at ORA.A man reading a newspaper at ORA.

There was a struggle to secure financing, compounded by a legacy of racism in the banking industry, which has left most Black people without generational wealth. There also was some back-and-forth with the building’s slumlord owner, a surly firearms dealer named BarKochba “BK” Botach. Even all of the business owners in the building couldn’t agree on how to proceed.

Eventually, Jolly and West brought in Prophet Walker, co-founder of the co-living company Treehouse and a developer known for his connections and savvy in the commercial real estate market. With his help, they were able to secure a loan through a programme created by LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and closed on the US$6.5mil (RM30.3mil) purchase last July. Ownership of the building was then transferred to the Black Owned and Operated Community Land Trust, founded by West.

Since then, Metro has opened its long-planned stop on the newly built Crenshaw Line around the corner from the building. And at the end of the block, progress is presumably being made on the achingly slow renovation of the Vision Theatre.

Meanwhile, Degnan Boulevard still looks a mess. Trash still lines alleyways and sidewalks, and a plan to redo the streetscape has mysteriously stalled – signs of what has long been a lack of investment and involvement by city officials, despite the neighbourhood’s importance as a centre for Black empowerment and protest.

Gentrification is still encroaching, though, and the land trust is just beginning its work to harness the coming influx of dollars for the good of Leimert Park’s residents.

A board of directors has been appointed, of which Jolly is a member, as are other business owners in the Degnan Boulevard building. So is Walker, who as the board’s chairman has recruited additional members from the music and entertainment industries, as well as from the nonprofit world. All of them are Black and have deep ties to South Los Angeles.

“The goal is really to take what we’ve done and be able to provide affordable retail space that is kept in the interest of and the spirit of what we’re doing in the community,” said Robbie Lee, interim chief executive of the land trust, affectionately dubbed “Boo C.L.T.”.

That means ensuring business owners don’t get priced out and forced to leave, so that the character and culture of Leimert Park won’t necessarily change as the economics inevitably do.

But to Jolly, that’s only part of what’s needed. So, in addition to the land trust, he also helps run Still Rising, the organisation behind the Juneteenth festival.

In the coming months, he hopes to launch a steady stream of community-focused programming and events to draw more people to Leimert Park. West, who has worked with Still Rising, too, has similar ideas. He envisions a Black arts district with galleries, music venues, a co-working space, a food hall and a much-needed grocery store.

Taken together, the message is clear: It’s not enough to just buy back the ‘hood. You also have to do something with it – ideally, something that’s meaningful and inspirational for the people who live and work there.

“It’s how can we, as a community, own that and be a part of the natural evolution of the neighbourhood,” Niija Kuykendall, a land trust board member told me. “Benefit from it and make it our own?”

Or as another board member, Charity Chandler-Cole, put it: “We’re so used to seeing things taken from us or being invited to the table way too late. Now we’re building the table for ourselves.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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