Column: They saved a block of Leimert Park from gentrification. That was just the beginning

Tony Jolly and his wife, Tina Amin, inspect recent renovations at their cafe ORA in Leimert Park.
Tony Jolly and his wife, Tina Amin, inspect recent renovations at their cafe ORA in Leimert Park. Opening in July, ORA used to be Hot and Cool Cafe, a longtime community gathering spot.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Tony Jolly sounded tired.

When I caught up with him last week, it had only been a few hours since tens of thousands of people had descended on Leimert Park to celebrate Juneteenth — and since the much-hyped, multi-block festival that he helped organize for the holiday abruptly went from phenomenal to frightening.

“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he told me wistfully.

For the record:

9:07 a.m. June 27, 2023An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of a recently rebranded cafe in Leimert Park as Aura. The cafe’s name is ORA.

Indeed, people were happily crammed shoulder to shoulder next to a stage situated on a narrow block of Degnan Boulevard, a few feet from the entrance to ORA, the cafe Jolly owns with his wife, Tina Amin.

Grammy winner Jazmine Sullivan had been scheduled to perform, but never made it on stage because, according to Jolly, a group of teenagers started lighting firecrackers as a “practical joke.”

Videos circulating on social media — at one point trending nationally — showed people running from what many assumed were gunshots, stepping on each other and knocking over vendor booths in a frantic stampede. Meanwhile, a McDonald’s got ransacked around the corner. And Amazon Music, which had been livestreaming the festival, cut the feed.


Now, a week later, L.A. City Councilmember Heather Hutt is vowing to meet with festival organizers, city officials and other stakeholders in her district “to avoid situations like this from happening again.”

A group of Black entrepreneurs trying to buy a commercial property reflects new thinking about what it’ll take to build wealth and save neighborhoods.

Feb. 17, 2022

In the meantime, the city has put “on hold” permits for another major concert in Leimert Park. It had been scheduled for this weekend by another group of organizers promoting reparations, and would’ve featured The Game, Eric Benet and Sounds of Blackness. It’s now scheduled for August.

So while the Juneteenth festival was, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious and compelling events to happen in South L.A. in years, it now seems a small miracle that no one who attended was seriously injured.

What, if anything, will come of that unfortunate burst of chaos and the city’s attempts to correct it remains to be seen. But at the very least, the good and bad of what happened last week hints at the amazing possibilities and potential challenges ahead for a little-known effort to transform a block of Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park into a lively cultural destination.

One where Black-owned businesses that serve the needs of the community can thrive in beautifully designed commercial buildings that are also Black owned. And where events of all sizes and types happen regularly.

Two men stand in front of a small audience outside a cafe in Leimert Park.
Akil West, center, owner of Sole Folks, and Prophet Walker, co-founder of Treehouse, talk with college students about a new land trust that is aiming to establish a foothold for Black ownership in rapidly gentrifying Leimert Park.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Led by two separate groups of Black Angelenos, their complementary missions could create a model for other neighborhoods of color — from Boyle Heights to West Adams — that are also facing a triple threat of gentrification, displacement and erasure.

Few are more convinced of this than Jolly.

When we met two years ago, he and Akil West, owner of the clothing boutique Sole Folks, had just decided to purchase the dilapidated building at Degnan Boulevard and West 43rd Street that houses their businesses and several others, including the now-shuttered Eso Won Books.

I wrote about what happened next in a series of columns. It could be a case study on the difficulties of buying back the ‘hood, Nipsey Hussle-style, in an American city.

There was a struggle to secure financing, compounded by a legacy of racism in the banking industry, which has left most Black people without generational wealth. There also was some back-and-forth with the building’s slumlord owner, a surly firearms dealer named BarKochba “BK” Botach. Even all of the business owners in the building couldn’t agree on how to proceed.

Eventually, Jolly and West brought in Prophet Walker, co-founder of the co-living company Treehouse and a developer known for his connections and savvy in the commercial real estate market. With his help, they were able to secure a loan through a program created by L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and closed on the $6.5-million purchase last July. Ownership of the building was then transferred to the Black Owned and Operated Community Land Trust, founded by West.

Since then, Metro has opened its long-planned stop on the newly built Crenshaw Line around the corner from the building. And at the end of the block, progress is presumably being made on the achingly slow renovation of the Vision Theatre.


Degnan Boulevard, meanwhile, still looks a mess. Trash lines the alleyways and sidewalks, and a plan to redo the streetscape has mysteriously stalled — signs of what has long been a lack of investment and involvement by city officials, despite the neighborhood’s importance as a center for Black empowerment and protest.

Gentrification is still encroaching, though, and the land trust is just beginning its work to harness the coming influx of dollars for the good of Leimert Park’s residents.

A board of directors has been appointed, of which Jolly is a member, as are other business owners in the Degnan Boulevard building. So is Walker, who as the board’s chairman has recruited additional members from the music and entertainment industries, as well as from the nonprofit world. All of them are Black and have deep ties to South Los Angeles.

A man stands next to a wall with a mural in Leimert Park.
Robbie Lee, shown in Leimert Park, is interim chief executive of Black Owned and Operated Community Land Trust.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“The goal is really to take what we’ve done and be able to provide affordable retail space that is kept in the interest of and the spirit of what we’re doing in the community,” said Robbie Lee, interim chief executive of the land trust, affectionately dubbed “Boo C.L.T.”

That means ensuring business owners don’t get priced out and forced to leave, so that the character and culture of Leimert Park won’t necessarily change as the economics inevitably do.

With $2 million from L.A. County, four business owners finally have enough to buy their building. It shouldn’t be this hard to build Black wealth.

July 27, 2022

But to Jolly, that’s only part of what’s needed. So, in addition to the land trust, he also helps run Still Rising, the organization behind last week’s Juneteenth festival.

In the coming months, he hopes to launch a steady stream of community-focused programming and events to draw more people to Leimert Park. West, who has worked with Still Rising, too, has similar ideas. He envisions a Black arts district with galleries, music venues, a co-working space, a food hall and a much-needed grocery store.

Taken together, the message is clear: It’s not enough to just buy back the ‘hood. You also have to do something with it — ideally, something that’s meaningful and inspirational for the people who live and work there.

“It’s how can we, as a community, own that and be a part of the natural evolution of the neighborhood,” Niija Kuykendall, a land trust board member and vice president of film at Netflix, told me. “Benefit from it and make it our own?”


Or as another board member, Charity Chandler-Cole, put it: “We’re so used to seeing things taken from us or being invited to the table way too late. Now we’re building the table for ourselves.”


A man reads a newspaper at the cafe ORA in Leimert Park.
A man reads a newspaper at ORA in Leimert Park. The cafe, formerly known as Hot and Cool Cafe, officially reopens to the public in July.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

To understand what’s in the works for Leimert Park, take a peek at ORA, pronounced “Aura.”

Long known as the eclectic community gathering spot Hot and Cool Cafe, it has been rebranded following a massive renovation prompted by water damage from last winter’s relentless rainstorms. It officially reopens in July.

On a recent afternoon, Amin took me on a short tour. Over the incessant beep, beep, beep of construction equipment and loud conversations about cleaning the plate glass windows overlooking Degnan Boulevard, she pointed out the African influences on the light fixtures.


The land trust, which helped fund the renovation, has made it a priority to work with Black architects, designers and developers.

“You’ll see this beautiful building and you’ll assume that it wasn’t Black folks creating it because we have this kind of deficit mindset. We think we can’t do something like this,” said Chandler-Cole, who grew up in South Central and is chief executive of the youth services agency CASA/LA. “So we want to make it very clear that no, we did this.”

Gone are the murals, the hodgepodge of furniture and the river painted on the floor. Now there’s exposed brick, polished concrete, marble tables, a plethora of plants and a dramatic loft ceiling crisscrossed with wooden beams.

Jolly calls ORA “a representation of a refined excellence to a community space,” designed to bridge the gap between the young artists who populated Hot and Cool and the Black professionals who are more likely to spend their time and money in Culver City.

“There’s an economic social divide among Black people in L.A.,” he told me. “We’re surrounded by really affluent Black people in Leimert Park, but none of them come down. None of them take a part in what we call the Black arts renaissance that’s taken place since 2020, since [Still Rising] did the first Juneteenth festival.”

Will residents see ORA as gentrification? After all, there’s nothing in the ever-shifting rules of urban lefty politics that says Black people can’t be gentrifiers.


Marc Byers, a longtime music industry executive and relative newbie to Los Angeles, doubts it. “They know the voices of the community,” he said of his fellow land trust board members, adding that the community is “very much included in the vision of what needs to happen because it’s really for them.”

A man stands next to a wall featuring a mural in Leimert Park.
Marc Byers, seen in Leimert Park, is a longtime music industry executive and relative newcomer to Los Angeles.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The real test of the community’s reception will come later. For, despite all of the work put into ORA, it’s only temporary. The land trust plans to redevelop the building on Degnan Boulevard.

The business owners will have to relocate during the construction, but are guaranteed another commercial space for the same amount in rent. Once the building is done, they will have the right to return. There will almost certainly be more floors, with more amenities and more space set aside for incubating new businesses.

“ORA is kind of the first step into what it would look like, brand-wise,” explained Ariel Lawrence, a developer and chief executive of Akin Co. brought in to lead the redevelopment project.

Other commercial and even residential buildings in Leimert Park and the broader Crenshaw corridor could come next. Degnan Boulevard is a proof of concept, a demonstration to the community that the land trust can be trusted to meet its needs.

“The goal is to be able to take what’s done here and to provide economic opportunity and ownership for others throughout the community. It’s got to start somewhere and I think that this building is where,” Lee said. “It would be a tragedy for this to stop at just this building.”


A worker puts the finishing touches on the redesign and rebranding of a cafe in Leimert Park.
Workers put the finishing touches on the redesign and rebranding of ORA, formerly known as the Hot and Cool Cafe, in Leimert Park.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Whatever happens next with Black Owned and Operated Community Land Trust, West won’t be part of it. At least for now.

In May, he quit the board of directors. West cites a list of reasons, but the short of it is he isn’t sure he has the temperament for it, particularly as CEO. Instead, he plans to focus on new ventures with Sole Folks. He’s also staying involved with Still Rising.

After a crowd stampede at the Leimert Park Village Juneteenth Festival, headliner Jazmine Sullivan canceled her performance. A McDonald’s was robbed in the chaos.

June 21, 2023

Jolly, meanwhile, has been thinking about what’s next for Leimert Park, especially after what happened on Juneteenth.

While the pressure is certainly on to ease up on events, he’d prefer to double down. Rather than ostracize the neighborhood’s teenagers, he wants to find ways to engage them and show them the value of being part of a culture.

He’d like to hold events specifically for them, whether it’s a backpack giveaway during Kwanzaa, or a festival on Kobe Day or Nipsey Hussle’s birthday.


It might not work, of course. Just like remaking the commercial core of Leimert Park might fall short. But that’s not the point. The point is someone has to try.

“What we’re doing on Degnan is needed,” Jolly said. “If we don’t exist as a land trust, adding Black businesses and [being] socially impactful in the community, who’s going to do it?”