A local group has long used an old firehouse. Now a clash with L.A. could push it out
It was nearly two decades ago that Los Angeles officials handed the keys to a shuttered fire station to the African Firefighters in Benevolent Assn.
Under the deal, the group was supposed to provide services to the community, including holistic healthcare seminars, conflict resolution and programs promoting African American culture. In exchange, it would get to use the South Los Angeles building without paying rent.
Now the group, known as AFIBA, has been ordered out of the old firehouse on Crenshaw Boulevard. In August, the city issued a notice that its license to use the property was being revoked.
The move spurred an outpouring of anger from supporters who have showed up at City Hall recently to protest the decision, arguing that the group has been providing critical services at the firehouse.
Last week, the founder of the group, Jabari Jumaane, called it “ironic” that Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the area and was absent that day, was headed to a conference where he was scheduled to speak about African American displacement.
“The gentrifiers aren’t encroaching upon our space,” Jumaane told council members at City Hall. “He is.”
Many critics were suspicious of what might be in store for the space because city staffers had raised the idea of erecting a tall structure with the word “Crenshaw” in the parking lot. The firehouse is along the stretch of Crenshaw that is slated to become Destination Crenshaw, a kind of open-air museum flanking the new Metro line under construction.
“This attack on the AFIBA Center is nothing but an extension of the Destination Crenshaw gentrification project,” said Lynn Moses, who has put on cultural and educational programs at the center. “They want to get rid of the consciousness and the activism.”
Harris-Dawson said that under the long-standing deal, the building was supposed to be available to the community, including neighborhood councils, community organizations and the city itself. The African Firefighters in Benevolent Assn. was also supposed to maintain the property, provide programs and meet other requirements, Harris-Dawson said.
The councilman said that despite failures to live up to that agreement — including people charging for the space — he had tried to negotiate a new deal with the group. The revocation notice states that the group can still seek a new agreement.
“The idea from the beginning has been to give them a new lease,” Harris-Dawson said Wednesday, adding that he wanted something that was clearer about expectations for the group. “They just haven’t been cooperative with that process.”
His spokesman, Antwone Roberts, said that “city staff have consistently had difficulties gaining access to the property” and that “AFIBA representatives remain unwilling to meet the most basic requirements of using a publicly owned facility.”
“Since AFIBA is unwilling to work through these issues, we will move forward to make sure the building can in fact be used for the stated purpose of the agreement,” Roberts said. “All groups or activities that have been able to use the AFIBA center will be able to continue to do so after this situation is resolved.”
City officials complained this year about not being able to reach the group promptly to access the property, according to emails provided by the council office. “With Destination Crenshaw coming up, we will need access to the station as it’s part of the project,” one Harris-Dawson aide wrote.
Jumaane, a former council candidate who works for the Los Angeles Fire Department, denied that city staffers had problems accessing the facility, pointing to a recent visit by two employees. The group has asked for donations to help cover maintenance and other costs, Jumaane said, but no one has been turned away from using the space because of money.
He said that a range of programs had been provided at the Crenshaw Boulevard building, including film screenings, relationship seminars and assistance from holistic health practitioners. The group, an unincorporated association that seeks to recruit and support African American firefighters, relies on volunteers and brings in other groups to provide services, Jumaane said.
“It’s well used,” said Assata Umoja, president of the Hyde Park Organizational Partnership for Empowerment. “We just recently had a business opportunities fair in the parking lot. That same day you had a drumming class.
“All kinds of things happen there,” Umoja said.
A nearby mural is splashed with images of the late rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle alongside the faces of local activists, a piece of art that Jumaane said was painted at the center before being mounted on the nearby corner of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw. Inside the building, rooms painted in red and green are decorated with photos of the grand opening of the Harambee Farmers Market, which has since stopped operating there.
Kahllid Al-Alim, president of the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, said that when the farmers market disappeared several years ago, the center seemed to become less active. Whether that means it failed to live up to the agreement, he said, “I couldn’t make a hard decision.”
“My disappointment is that the negotiations ended in an eviction … because now what does it become?” Al-Alim asked.
Jumaane said that although the farmers market was his group’s most visible program, it was “certainly not our only program” and other activities had continued. The group’s Facebook page has not listed any new events for years, but a paper calendar kept at the center is dotted with activities.
Jumaane said his group had not heard that there was any question of it staying in the firehouse until late August, when he phoned a city official who told him a revocation notice had been sent out. He said group members later discovered that someone had reached through their fence and tossed the notice on the grass where a gardener was throwing out stray papers.
The city notice said that the group had to vacate the space by Sept. 9. A week later,Jumaane was still in the space, where hand-lettered signs with slogans like “WE’RE NOT OBSOLETE” sat in one room.
“We were not served properly,” he said.
Under the month-to-month agreement, the deal can be revoked at any time with 30 days’ written notice. The Department of General Services, which handles the building agreement, said it could not comment on when the African Firefighters in Benevolent Assn. would be required to leave or whether the city would take any action to force it out.
The dispute comes as Harris-Dawson is running for reelection. A rival candidate, Denise Francis Woods, has called for the group’s center to be saved and criticized the councilman over his handling of the issue.
“We don’t need a Watts Tower there,” she said, referring to the talk of installing a towering Crenshaw sign. “We need to continue to have a place for the community.”
Roberts, the spokesman for the councilman, said their goal was also a community space — and AFIBA can still be part of that. “Organizations including AFIBA will be allowed to use the space once this issue has been resolved,” Roberts said.
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