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Public Places : Leimert Park: Bolstering a ‘Fragile’ Place

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Leimert Park is a center for African American culture in Los Angeles. The area occupies a little more than a square-mile of the Crenshaw district. Its business and arts core is Leimert Park Village, an array of shops, art galleries and boutiques that sell African American clothing and jewelry. There is a popular jazz venue/coffee house and the Art Deco Vision theater offers dance, movies and theater performances. A small park with a landmark fountain acts as a podium for backers of social causes and a backdrop for street festivals that often close Degnan Boulevard, the area’s block-and-a-half-long main street.

Despite the neighborhood’s appeal, a high vacancy rate plagues the commercial properties. Wealthy residents living in nearby View Park and Baldwin Hills tend not to cross over busy Crenshaw Boulevard to shop there.

The area hopes to improve its standing using funds it was awarded last year as one of eight neighborhoods participating in the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. The $250,000 federal award will be used to plant trees and provide bus shelters and kiosks, pedestrian lighting and banners.

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The money is seen as a first step for Leimert Park Village. “Revitalization is a long-term process,” says Mac Nichols, project manager for the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “You don’t want to dump millions of dollars quickly into a commercial area like Leimert Park Village because you drive rents up and would lose many of the locally owned businesses that create an identity and sense of place. The key is building a broad base of support linking the businesses with the residents and strong management.”

Here, MICHAELE PRIDE-WELLS, an architect who acted as consultant to the Leimert Park Village community board created to oversee the distribution of LANI funds, discusses the project.

Why was Leimert Park selected for LANI funds?

Answer: It’s a great place to live. The neighborhood was laid out by the Olmstead brothers, the landscape architects who designed Central Park in New York. It’s got a great balance of mid-density apartments and nice, single-family neighborhoods and beautiful tree-lined streets.

There are a lot of longtime residents who have a stake in the neighborhood. It’s a little fragile at the moment as some buildings that were owner occupied are now becoming rentals, making for a more transient, less stable area.

Q: What’s important about LANI?

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A: In Los Angeles, planning has always been from the top down. But this is community based, with each neighborhood having its own board, developing its own work plan, and hiring its own full-time manager. It means the residents will decide want they want. The Leimert board already got a commitment from the parks and recreation department for landscaping in the park, parking lot improvements and $90,000 in gas tax funds for facades.

This is a two-year project. It makes the group focus on a goal that must be completed in a specific amount of time. It’s also attracting other improvements: Gannett Co. has agreed to install and maintain three ad-free bus shelters, two kiosks, three benches and three trash cans.

Q: Leimert Park Village has been likened to the successful Larchmont Village in the wealthy Hancock Park area. What do you think of the comparison?

A: When people compare Leimert Park Village to Larchmont, they’re talking about the potential. But Larchmont Village is linear. Leimert Park is a place, a district.

Whatever happens will be a result of the active participation of shop owners and residents. I think they’ll make it happen.

Public Places columnist Jane Spiller welcomes suggestions for places that are publicly accessible and free. Contact her c/o Voices.

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Text and photos by JANE SPILLER

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