Feeling the pulse of a neighborhood

Special to The Times

IT’S hard to imagine a homier hangout on a cool, overcast Sunday afternoon than 5th Street Dick’s Coffeehouse in Leimert Park. A trio led by a beaming, bespectacled drummer nailed straight-ahead jazz. My date and I sat on a plump couch near two old men who chimed in occasionally on their saxophones, seeming sometimes part of the audience and sometimes part of the band.

The sax players told us during the break that they were drop-ins who had asked if they could jam, an impromptu jelling that captured the easy, come-what-may vibe not just of the cafe but of the entire neighborhood.

Yet my companion confessed to feeling uncomfortable. It wasn’t that anyone was unfriendly toward us, a white man and an Asian woman in a predominantly black area. Quite the contrary: The proprietors of Degnan Boulevard’s African-themed souvenir shops and artsy coffeehouses went out of their way to make us welcome.

But the neighborhood is primarily African American, and the symbols of pride are everywhere: racks filled with kente-cloth robes, pedestrians wearing those robes, African drummers working up a rhythm on the sidewalks. As an Asian woman, I was a tourist but felt no burden. My white friend felt weighed down by the undercurrents that provoked race riots.


An afternoon in Leimert Park might tell you something about who you are. African Americans might measure their own racial identity against the uber-blackness of black bohemia. Asians or Latinos may reflect on kinship with other nonwhites. If you’re white, you may feel like a minority in an African American microcosm.

As I marched over to check out a lowrider car rally across the way, my friend lagged a few steps behind. He said he felt a physical threat, real or imagined, from the young black and Latino men who lounged near their souped-up Cadillacs and Chevy Impalas.

The drum circle in Leimert Plaza, on the other hand, was peopled by middle-aged men. Anyone could purchase an African drum from a nearby store and join in. An eloquent homeless man we spoke to earlier called the rhythms “the pulse of our neighborhood.”

As night fell, we scoped out our soul food options. Phillip’s Barbecue was closed, so we headed to M&M; just a few doors down from the cafe where we began our day. We dug into the fried chicken and meltingly soft short ribs, thoroughly in our element and looking forward to peach cobbler for dessert.


The tab

Coffee and jazz $8.79

Where: 5th Street Dick’s Coffeehouse, 4305 Degnan Blvd., (323) 296-0040. Coffee plus $5 tip for the musicians.



Shopping $3

Where: Sika Master Jeweler, 4330 Degnan Blvd., (323) 295-2502. Senegalese basket.



Dinner $35

Where: M&M; Soulfood Restaurant, 4317 Degnan Blvd., (323) 298-9898. Fried chicken, short ribs, peach cobbler, cornbread and other sides.

Total $46.79