For decades, tiny Leimert Plaza Park at Crenshaw Boulevard and 43rd Place has loomed very large in black Los Angeles. Designed for the then-white bedroom community of Leimert Park in the 1920s, it morphed over the years into a symbol of black aspiration as the neighborhood changed color, but not its middle-class aesthetics, through the 1950s and ’60s. Degnan Boulevard became a focal point of black art and music, and Leimert Plaza Park, an extension of the boulevard and its dreams, became a staging place for festivals, concerts, chess matches, readings, drum circles, political rallies, protests and vigils, often organized at a moment’s notice.
The park has long been a bit rough around the edges, sure, but the great thing about Leimert is that it is black L.A. at its most street-level real, and its most ideal. It’s open to everyone, used by everyone.
That openness may literally be coming to an end. In March, the city announced plans to beautify the park, including new landscaping, a restored fountain and an enclosure, including a 8-to-10-foot high “decorative gate,” around the perimeter. In other words, a fence.
The announcement took many residents by surprise, not in a good way, and a group of them have been working for months to try to stop the fence, or at least to have a serious audience with Councilman Herb Wesson’s office about their concerns. (Wesson’s office says the proposal was sanctioned by Leimert’s business improvement district, and the planning process was democratic.)
At the core of the objections to the city’s plan is renewed anxiety about the fate of unfettered black space. The neighborhood around the park has been steadily gentrifying, with whites and other non-blacks moving in and forcing questions about Leimert Park’s identity, character and direction. The proposed fence coincides with the construction of the Crenshaw-to-LAX Metro rail line and related development that’s either underway or on the verge. Who, and what, will be in or out when all the change settles down?
Small wonder that the park itself, as the geographic and spiritual center of the Crenshaw district, and of black life in the city, seems itself under siege. Add to that the high-crime connotations raised by fences and bars in black neighborhoods, and the improvement plan begins to look like its opposite — less an expansion of Leimert than a contraction, a shutting down.
The fence, however decorative, is a security measure, a predictable response to drug use and homelessness that has spiked in Crenshaw and all over L.A. Granted, the phenomenon poses a tricky problem for shop owners who want to preserve the grassroots spirit of the neighborhood and still attract more business, new business.
Ben Caldwell — artist, teacher, property owner, park activist, youth activist — is philosophically against the fence.
“It’s not very humane,” he says.
But Caldwell is also prepared to make the best of what he says is a done deal at City Hall. He’s working with another city project to festoon the fence with what he’s calling monumental art — life-size renderings of local heroes like jazz performers Barbara Morrison and Horace Tapscott — that he hopes will turn the barricade into a public affirmation of Leimert’s heritage, rather than an obscuring or erasure of it.
“Let’s make the park a palette,” Caldwell says. “The whole goal and focus is to make it unapologetically black, artistic and wonderful.”
That doesn’t convince Mateo Rubio, a 20-year Leimert Park resident whose roots in the area go back even further. Rubio is a small-business owner who has been involved in community beautification campaigns and past efforts to oppose unwanted development on and around Degnan. His argument against the fence is aesthetic and existential. Fences are ugly, he says, but there’s much more at stake.
“This is the last black special place on the West Coast,” he says.“Having unrestricted access to this little plaza is critical.”
Rubio is Latino, but he vouches unequivocally for the uniquely black character of Leimert Park — a rare instance of ethnic solidarity that isn’t about coming together over slogans, or tacos and soul food. “Just like Latinos can go to Mariachi Plaza, we need to come here,” he insists. “It’s a holy place.”
Rubio posted word about the fence on a neighborhood listserve earlier this year, and got more than 160 comments from Leimert residents but also from Baldwin Hills, Park Mesa Heights and other Crenshaw enclaves. “The overwhelming sentiment was: ‘We realize the park has problems, but this won’t solve them,’ ” says Rubio. “Leimert Park has always been a place of healing for the black community, and fences don’t heal.”
A friend of mine who’s a veteran architect and developer who’s done projects in Crenshaw says the real issue is the city’s lack of a more creative and long-term solution to urban realities that affect the park. Leimert Plaza Park has never gotten the kind of attention it deserves, he says, because it’s been seen by officials less as the heart of black L.A. and more as just a patch of open space in a black area that’s an occasional nuisance. If it had been upgraded — “beautified” — years ago and maintained, it would more accurately reflect the aspirations of its neighborhood. The rough elements would have been addressed, taken into account; they would be less a crisis needing attention now.
It’s even conceivable that a better-kept park all along, as a symbol of a thriving, imperfect but culturally unified Leimert, might have staved off the worst aspects of gentrification in Crenshaw. Instead of a gated “amenity,” Leimert Plaza Park would be, as its original developer Walter H. Leimert intended, fence-free and wide open for business.