Inglewood recalls Lakers' years at Forum, remains wary of Rams' plan

Inglewood is on the resurgence following years of decline after the Lakers left for Staples Center

Bob Watson remembers when "Inglewood: The City of Champions" banners hung from the light poles on Manchester Boulevard. The Lakers were dominating professional basketball and their success had helped make their arena — the Fabulous Forum — one of American sports' most recognizable venues.

All of it resonated in the chests of locals like Watson, 65, who has lived near the Forum for three decades. "It made me feel proud, good," he said.

After the Lakers left Inglewood for the Staples Center in 1999, he said, he watched the thriving city just east of LAX become a sleepy shell of itself. Businesses left, its signature Market Street deteriorated, and the Forum became a venue for religious revivals. By 2013, Hollywood Park — the once-grand racetrack where celebrities such as Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire gathered to watch the horses run — had closed.

"I miss the Lakers. I wish they never left. They were the true spark of Inglewood," he said. "We just dried up out of sight."

With St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke's announcement Monday that he will build an NFL-caliber football stadium in Inglewood near the old Hollywood Park racetrack — part of a development that promises 40,000 new jobs and $1 billion a year for the local economy — Watson and other residents have reason to daydream about a return to more glamorous days.

Watson, a retired postal worker, put away his Rams jersey after the football franchise — which played at the Coliseum and later in Anaheim — left Southern California in 1995, but he hopes to dust it off and walk to their games if they return.

If the Rams don't come, maybe the Oakland Raiders will. Or the San Diego Chargers.

But for Angelenos pining for the return of professional football, it is not so easy to believe. They can rattle off two decades of ill-fated efforts to lure a franchise back to town — the Coliseum, Carson, the City of Industry, Chavez Ravine and downtown Los Angeles.

On Monday, as news spread of the Rams owner's plans, Robert Govan, a sheet metal worker, and his girlfriend Darlene Simpson, a schoolteacher, walked laps around the Forum, passing the empty lot where the proposed 80,000-seat stadium would rise.

Govan, 52, who lives blocks away, recalls "an empty feeling" when the Rams moved to St. Louis and hopes they will return. But "right now, it's just conversation," he said.

Simpson, a longtime Inglewood resident, remembers when neighbors used to brag about their city. "It was one of my goals in life to move to Inglewood," said Simpson, 46. "The pride — you heard about it, you could feel it and you wanted to be a part of it."

Over the years, the city's reputation suffered amid political corruption, gang violence, rioting, public school scandals and a Hollywood film that portrayed it as rife with crime.

At its height, Inglewood was a social meeting grounds for people from all over Los Angeles County, said Pacis Goffney, an Inglewood native and resident.

The 46-year-old remembers hanging out at the Forum Club during Lakers games and having drinks with out-of-town visitors.

"There was a lot of activity in Inglewood," he said. "And the city was known for the Forum — not gang violence or drugs. It had a positive vibe and energy."

But when the Lakers moved downtown, he said, Inglewood lost its connection to the wider county. "It left Inglewood all by itself," he said.

There have been promising signs of late, though. Crime is down sharply, following a broader Los Angeles County trend. Inglewood was named 2014 Neighborhood of the Year by Curbed LA, a real estate and neighborhood news blog. And the group that runs Madison Square Garden bought the Forum, and it is now a thriving concert venue.

A few months back, Goffney spotted a group of out-of-towners walking from the Forum after a Tom Petty concert.

"They asked me for directions to the local bar," he said. "They did not conceive that Inglewood was a bad area."

Goffney directed the group to the Market Street Bar and Grill. "I haven't seen that in a long time," he said. "To be honest, I didn't see that back in the days. People feeling comfortable walking that far because the party was not over for them. We need that here."

But Dominick Tucker, 52, a lifelong Inglewood resident who owns a construction business, still remembers the personal connection he felt to the Lakers. "The players were ours," he said. "It was like we could reach out and touch them as they walked through the tunnel."

When they left his city, he gave up his season tickets and started betting against the team.

The new Forum isn't the same, even with the big concerts. "There's no life in it," he said. "People come in and out and don't really visit the city. The Lakers were life."

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. put the news in the context of an economic resurgence in Inglewood, where more than 120 small businesses opened in 2014, employing hundreds of residents, and where the city plans a major Market Street development.

The NFL stadium could transform Inglewood from "a city on the rise to a top-tier metropolis" if voters approve the plan, which will require signatures from 15% of the city's about 52,000 registered voters to get on the ballot. Butts said the soonest it could appear before voters would probably be in June.

He said he has not been contacted by the NFL since news of the proposal broke.

"Anybody that wants to come here, we're a pretty good host, whether it's basketball, soccer, football — we're here," he said. "We're a great place. We're at the epicenter of four freeways, we're a mile and a half from L.A. International Airport, we have ocean breezes, great climate — we're a good place to be, and people are recognizing that."

A handful of Rams fans attended the news conference, carrying a banner that said: "Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams."

"The stadium is a great, great, great sign," said Skye Sverdlin, 36 of Venice. "Because we know who is building it and what team he owns."

The new complex could boost the town's reputation, provide local jobs and increase tourism and game-day spending, USC sports business professor David Carter said.

But he cautioned that Inglewood's relatively small size and lack of infrastructure may prevent it from taking full advantage of having a team. In the event of a Super Bowl or large rivalry game, for example, people might choose to book hotel rooms or rent cars in other cities.

Carter suggested that a stadium is perhaps best thought of as being beneficial to the Greater Los Angeles area, rather than Inglewood alone. And there can be downturns to having a stadium in one's hometown: a gridlock of fans on a Sunday afternoon can make it hard for people to get home from church or pick up pick up groceries from the store.

The plan is poised "to have a material impact on Inglewood, but you still have to say at what cost?" Carter said.

angel.jennings@latimes.com

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Times staff writers Emily Foxhall and Matt Stevens contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
75°