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Newsletter: Essential California: A push to protect a historic Black church in Venice

An aging A-frame church building with boarded-up doors
The First Baptist Church of Venice is shown in June 2020 in the Oakwood neighborhood.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 14, and I’m Robert J. Lopez, writing from Los Angeles.

Naomi Nightingale remembers when parishioners flocked to the First Baptist Church of Venice, a towering A-frame building that was a local institution for Black residents.

Many of the church members were from the surrounding Oakwood neighborhood, one of the few places where Black residents were allowed to live by the beach in the early 1900s, when they were arriving to provide labor for developer Abbot Kinney’s dream of building a seaside attraction modeled after Italy’s city of water.

“The church symbolized culture, it symbolized family, it symbolized faith,” Nightingale, 75, a longtime Oakwood resident and university professor, told me during a phone conversation this week.

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The church was founded in Oakwood in 1910 and moved to the corner of Westminster and 7th avenues after the current structure was built in 1967, city records show.

Over the years, the First Baptist congregation dwindled as gentrification transformed Oakwood and the rest of Venice. The neighborhood became more white as Black families sold their homes or were priced out the area, which I wrote about in an opinion piece for The Times. After being saddled with millions of dollars in loans, the church sold its property in 2017 for $11.8 million, according to court records.

As my colleague Robin Abcarian reported in 2020, the church and its property across the street on Westminster Avenue were purchased by Jay Penske, chief executive of Penske Media, and his wife, former Victoria’s Secret model Elaine Irwin, who planned to build a massive home overlooking Oakwood Park.

Nightingale, along with other residents and supporters, rallied to save the church. They wrote letters to city officials and held vigils and protests, including an emotional gathering attended by hundreds in June 2020, after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd.

In September, the City Council voted unanimously to designate the First Baptist Church as a historic-cultural monument. “The church is firmly rooted in the cultural history of the community,” Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the area, wrote in a motion supporting the designation.

A spokesman for Bonin told me this week that the councilman is strongly encouraging the owner of the building to work with the community to develop a plan that benefits everyone. Among the ideas, spokesman David Graham-Casso said, is to turn it into a community center.

Public records show the property was sold again in 2020 to a limited liability corporation represented by Lee Polster, a Los Angeles real estate broker. He could not be reached for comment.

The architect for the project, Robert Thibodeau, said in a phone interview that he had not spoken to Polster in about six months and wasn’t sure about the future plans for the property.

Thibodeau, who sits on the Venice Neighborhood Council, said he understands the building’s cultural and historic significance and noted that his design had preserved the structure’s A-frame façade.

“We’re going to work in cooperation with the city and with what people want,” Thibodeau said. “That’s always been our intent.”

For now, the building’s windows and doors are boarded up and its paint is badly faded. A banner hanging on a wall reads: “Black Prayers Matter.”

(Shout out to Times research librarian Scott Wilson, who helped me gather property records for this report.)

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

From paleta maker in southeast L.A. to dessert supplier at Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood. Lauda Flores moved with her family from Mexico to Los Angeles as a young girl. Her parents opened Los Alpes Paletería in Huntington Park, an ice cream shop that featured more than 100 flavors, including a popular “frijol”-flavored paleta. Flores eventually opened Sno Con Amor, which features artisanal snow cones and snow pops. Next month, her desserts will be featured at Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. L.A. Taco

The power of PTAs and private fundraising. As a parent who sent his children to public schools, I saw firsthand how schools in affluent areas were able to raise more money from parents for everything from art supplies to augmenting teacher salaries. A new report by LAist has created a database showing that parent organizations in the Los Angeles Unified School District often cover major costs in affluent and gentrifying areas. The report raises questions about whether this is contributing to inequities in public education in the nation’s second-largest school district. LAist

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Legal Weed, Broken Promises. That’s the title of a series of occasional Times reports that will be published this year examining California’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry, estimated to be the largest legal pot market in the world. State voters approved legalization of cannabis for recreational use in 2016. But many of the promises touted by supporters of the landmark legalization have proved to be elusive. The series kicked off Thursday with an investigative report by my colleague Kiera Feldman, who reports on a key reform championed by legalization advocates: creating a legal pathway in the courts that would allow people to clear past marijuana convictions or have them reduced to a lesser charge. It was a step intended to help redress injustices inflicted upon poor people and communities of color in the so-called war on drugs. But has it turned out that way? Los Angeles Times

Student loan provider to erase $1.7 billion in debt after lawsuit. California and other states have settled a suit filed against Navient, one of the nation’s largest private lenders. Navient will offer $95 million in restitution for borrowers and cancel $1.7 billion in private loan debt for borrowers across the country, California law enforcement authorities announced. Californians are expected to receive about $11.5 million of the direct restitution and $261 million of the private debt cancellation. Sacramento Bee

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

Convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy is denied parole. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday refused to parole Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of the 1968 killing of Kennedy at a Los Angeles hotel the day after the charismatic senator won California’s 1968 Democratic presidential primary. The killing of Kennedy, who was considered a leading presidential candidate, altered the course of the presidential election during a turbulent chapter in U.S. history. In a statement, Newsom described the killing as one of the “most notorious crimes in American history.” Los Angeles Times

Rapper accused of punching autograph-seeking fan. Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, is under investigation by Los Angeles police for criminal battery. The incident took place early Thursday outside the members-only Soho Warehouse club and hotel in downtown L.A., police said. Ye allegedly punched and pushed the fan who was seeking an autograph. By the time police arrived, Ye had left and the fan refused medical attention. Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Home coronavirus tests will soon be covered by insurance. The demand for at-home tests has been great, and they have been hard to find and afford. But soon, people with health insurance will be able to have the cost of their home test kits covered by insurers. The Times’ Utility Desk explains the ins and outs of who is eligible and which at-home tests are covered by insurers. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

New Korean restaurant creating Bay Area buzz. Joodooboo, a highly anticipated restaurant specializing in Korean-style homemade tofu and vegetable side dishes known as banchan, opened this week in Oakland. Lines of customers formed outside the restaurant during several neighborhood previews in December. Joodoobo also sold out dozens of banchan subscriptions — essentially a commitment to eating its Korean side dishes for a month. Chef Steve Joo has teamed up with Julya Shin. Joo has worked at several prominent restaurants known for California cuisine, including the venerable Terra in Napa County. San Francisco Chronicle

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 74, mostly cloudy San Diego: 69, mostly cloudy San Francisco: 59, partly cloudy San Jose: 62, mostly sunny Fresno: 58, mostly cloudy Sacramento: 64, mostly sunny

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Eloise Cohen:

Our family (two parents, three siblings) was driving to California in September 1963, moving from Minnesota so our dad could start a new job in Thousand Oaks. We were in an Oldsmobile sedan and had a tire blow out in the fast lane of the 101 Freeway at Sunset Boulevard. We all disembarked and waited for a break in traffic and ran across to the shoulder while my brother gradually drove the car across the lanes so we could change the tire. The trunk was packed to the brim with all our personal belongings, and we had to unload everything to get to the spare tire and load up again. I think of how lucky we were to survive that first night in California every time I drive by Sunset Boulevard.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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