Village Life Worth Saving

The storefront jazz clubs and art studios in the heart of Los Angeles' Leimert Park Village have been living on borrowed time. The longtime landlord charged below-market rates, often in exchange for tenants doing the plumbing and painting themselves. It was a small-town arrangement befitting an area developed in the 1920s as a walkable, neighborly community, one that has become a hub of African American culture, festivals and food.

Then last summer the ailing landlord's family sold the property, and as one tenant put it, "Along comes reality." The new owner, Sherman Oaks-based Russell Associates, doubled rents. Unlike its predecessor, it has refused requests to meet with tenants or to say what its long-term plans are for the nine Degnan Boulevard shops. A stained-glass artist who saw his payments go from $1,000 to $2,300 a month has already closed his studio. Lulled by years of cheap rents, shopkeepers didn't plan for this day -- a warning to the neighborhood's 50 or so other merchants.

Elsewhere in Los Angeles and in other big cities, artists take advantage of cheap rents, help revitalize a neighborhood and get forced out when rents go up. End of sad story. But in Leimert Park, it's more than that.

Los Angeles invested in the long- neglected neighborhood after the 1992 riots, funneling grants into better lighting and streetscaping. Public efforts joined those of entrepreneurial artists and musicians to revitalize what was one of the city's first planned communities, designed by the Olmsteds of New York Central Park fame.

Leimert Park today binds together history, culture and identity in a city that is too often accused of having none of the above. A city that is trying to nurture similar hubs elsewhere -- think the San Fernando Valley's NoHo Arts District -- can't afford to lose the few already in place.

The Leimert Park shopkeepers facing higher rents and the hundreds of artists and others who rallied last Saturday in their support want the city's help to stay in business. But rent subsidies, whether public or private, aren't the answer -- and are unlikely to materialize anyway in this era of government deficits.

Instead, what Leimert Park needs is creative thinking about how to transform tenants into property owners. Candidates vying to represent this neighborhood as part of the 8th Los Angeles City Council District in the March city election need to put their ideas on the table -- and be judged accordingly.

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