Great expectations

Special to The Times

On the still riot-marred landscape of South L.A., "potential" has become a hackneyed word, a political euphemism for improvements in black neighborhoods that were discussed after the riots in 1992 but never materialized. Yet there is one unlikely area of redevelopment where "potential" still resonates beyond the rhetoric: theater.

While commercial projects struggled, two mid-size theaters -- the Vision Theater in Leimert Park and the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in midtown -- were acquired by the city in the late 1990s to preserve and build an arts scene that seemed like a natural catalyst for the kind of development these neighborhoods lacked.

As is the case with much of South L.A., the two venues have been defined less by what has happened than by what has not. The Vision remains in the early stages of renovation, while the Holden is open for business but often stands dark. Still, the theaters serve as powerful symbols for what is possible in black neighborhoods, creatively and economically. Whether they will live up to this potential is an age-old question that many hope will be answered in the affirmative.

The biggest obstacle is one that's plagued South L.A. and black neighborhoods for years: expectations. Development has been unimaginative and mostly limited to chain stores and small-scale retail -- Wal-Mart, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks. Certainly everyone embraces the idea of developing the arts; like education reform, it's a politically popular position to take, especially in Leimert Park, where jazz and blues venues, coffeehouses, galleries and African-themed shops have made it a local mecca of black culture for two decades. But Leimert has languished, part of the larger economic struggle of the surrounding Crenshaw District.

Enter District 8 Councilman Bernard C. Parks. For the last two years, the former Los Angeles police chief has been pushing to finalize a redevelopment plan for Leimert Park Village with a restored Vision Theater at its center.

Though still short on specifics, Parks has taken an aggressive stance on the pace of this project. The councilman did not return calls for comment, but aide David Roberts was upbeat: "The Vision will be an economic catalyst to drive restaurants and be a cultural hub. It could host live theater, concerts, music, the Pan African Film Festival, the Debbie Allen dance theater -- we've already had a lot of interest."

District 10 Councilman Herb Wesson, who represents the midtown neighborhood where the Holden is located, sounded a similarly proactive note -- not just about the Holden but about the whole area as an arts destination. Wesson would like to see the Holden serve primarily as a dance theater, one with a black identity but known for dance of all kinds. He's met with UCLA and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission to discuss possible partnerships, but neither has panned out -- partly because of divergent visions but mostly because of money.

Wesson wants to find a way to generate revenue from two spaces in the Holden that could function year-round as cafes or venues for community events. He also wants to put together a two-year pilot program of theater produced by local actors -- a group that includes Laurence Fishburne. Though these options are still in the planning phase, Wesson sounds undaunted. "I'm not going to go quietly into the night with it. The jury is still out on how the city will do the things it needs to do. But I'm going to do my best."

Others are more circumspect. "The city basically builds the [theater], turns the key over to us and tells us to operate it -- with no operating budget," says Ernest Dillihay, facilities director for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees six theaters citywide. He says some city theaters, such as the Madrid in Canoga Park and the Warner Grand in San Pedro, receive support from community or preservation groups. But that has not been the case in South L.A., also the site of the Watts Towers Arts Center and the William Grant Still Arts Center.

The city's acquisition of theaters in financial or structural trouble is a liability that's tougher to overcome in the inner city, Dillihay says. "The city is usually a last resort," he told a group of Leimert Park residents and activists this year. "It's a model built on fallback, not on initiative."

The Holden started life as the Ebony Showcase in 1950, a live theater on Washington Boulevard in an improbable neighborhood between the 10 Freeway and Hollywood marked by historic architecture and, starting in the 1980s, a lively drug trade. The Showcase, which was founded by Nick Stewart, an actor best known for his role as Lightnin' in the "Amos 'n' Andy" television series, gave the area an air of cultural promise. Galled by the lack of dignified movie roles for blacks, Stewart started the Showcase to provide alternatives for black performers. The theater became an institution. But it fell on hard times and disrepair in the '80s and '90s, and finally was foreclosed on in 1996.

The city took over and spent $7 million over the next eight years replacing the Showcase with the sleekly modern Holden, which opened in 2004. Since then, however, the theater has hosted one Equity production and a few black-themed shows and events but has served primarily as a rental facility.

The story of the Vision Theater is similar. Originally a movie house, it was dark for years before actress Marla Gibbs bought it in 1990 and rechristened it the Vision Theater. The name reflected Gibbs' ambition of instituting quality black theater in the 'hood.

Architecturally, the Vision is the focal point of Leimert -- a 1930s movie palace at 43rd Place and Degnan Boulevard, it towers above surrounding storefronts -- and seemed a natural addition to the artists, merchants and musicians who were staking out the area as L.A.'s homegrown hot spot of black culture and arts. Then came the 1992 riots. The Vision remained but suffered financially. The bank foreclosed on the property in 1997, and again, the city stepped in.

Gibbs says the Vision years drained her, financially and otherwise. "It just about killed me," she says. "It was my vision, and I paid for it."

She cites a lack of community contributions as the chief reason for failure but also says she received no help from the city. "The biggest problem seemed to be that I owned the building," Gibbs says. "The Vision was for the community and the children, but people always saw it as Marla's. It was a battle. By the time I paid bills every month, I couldn't do the things I wanted."

Today the Vision is on the road to renovation, but completion is $11 million and at least two years away.

Dillihay thinks the city can do more to help. He points out that the Community Redevelopment Agency -- the city's redevelopment arm -- has done wonders in Hollywood and North Hollywood's theater districts. But not in Crenshaw and South L.A. "The whole point of our theater acquisition is to encourage economic development and job creation in neighborhoods," Dillihay says. "Theater has great revenue potential, but the city doesn't always see it."

Actor Wren T. Brown, who is part of the group working with Wesson on the pilot program, says the time is ripe for a collaboration between community-based theater and L.A.'s vast black talent pool that doesn't have enough viable outlets for its work. "We'd be working under professional contracts, like Broadway and the finest regional theaters," says Brown, who produced book-signing events with music producer Russell Simmons and singer Eddie Levert at the Holden. "Every aspect of theater -- actors, writers, directors -- are right here in town. We could do this at the Holden and prove that you don't have to leave home to work."

But the Nick Stewarts and Marla Gibbses are few and far between. The disinterest also speaks to a class divide within the black community, which makes the notion of black theater based on geography an increasing challenge. "If an 'urban arts center' is perceived as risky," Dillihay says, "we lose development of the whole area."

But that's a nonissue for those who see black history and culture as Leimert Park's and the larger Crenshaw district's chief asset. Neighborhood group Save Leimert Park is the latest effort to preserve, among other things, the area's black identity. Past campaigns include one to give Degnan Boulevard the new name Malcolm X Boulevard and another to change Leimert Park Village to African-American Village. And though Crenshaw is best known for its community arts scene, it's also home to the largest black middle-class population west of the Mississippi, with businesses and institutions -- NAACP, the mega-church West Angeles -- that reflect that.

Complicating matters is a history of mistrust among black artists, residents and activists toward politicians they often view as part of a power structure that does not operate in their interest. Stewart fought bitterly against what he saw as a hostile takeover of the Ebony Showcase by the city, successfully suing to prevent the city from retaining the name for the new structure. Merchants and activists in Leimert Park clashed openly and often with then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas; his proposal in 1998 to install parking meters in lots around the village resulted in fierce opposition and street protests. Ridley-Thomas never forged a redevelopment plan. Parks is making more progress. After initially opposing the councilman's fast-track plan, Save Leimert Park worked to strike a balance between what it and the city want for the neighborhood. Now several group members are opposing recommendations recently made by a team of architects that has been working on the Leimert project for more than a year. While there's no disagreement about restoring the Vision, the plan "is just not there," says Lark Galloway-Gillim, a resident and member of Save Leimert Park.

Dillihay says the stalemate is typical -- but can be broken with new strategies of collaboration. "Parks is on the council budget committee. Wesson is on the economic development committee," he muses. "My fondest wish is that that they would get together and do something."

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