Op-Ed: The First Baptist Church has closed, a symbol of Venice’s shrinking black population
On a recent Sunday, I drove past the historic First Baptist Church in the Oakwood section of Venice. The church was the heart of Venice’s African American community for more than a century. Now its paint is peeling, its windows and doors boarded up.
The A-frame building is a short walk from the Venice boardwalk, and an even shorter walk from the trendy shops and restaurants of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which Forbes recently declared “the coolest street in America.”
I live less a than a mile from the church. When I bought my house in 1996, the median home price in Venice was around $260,000. Today the median home price is $1.8 million. Homeowners like me have benefited from the real estate boom, of course. But homeowners like me have also lost, as our neighborhood became less diverse and our common history was washed away.
African Americans have more than a century of history in Venice. In fact, they helped build the town back in the early 1900s. When developer Abbot Kinney began to realize his dream of creating a seaside attraction modeled after Italy’s city of water, he hired black laborers to dig the canals in the marshlands and to work as janitors at his beachfront amusement park.
Those early workers settled in the roughly one-square-mile area known as Oakwood. The area was home to families like the Tabors, who had come from Louisiana, and whose patriarch, Irving Tabor, was Kinney’s driver and confidant. When Kinney died in 1920, he left his home to Tabor. But because black people were not allowed to live in any other part of Venice, Tabor had to cut the structure in half and move it from the canals to Oakwood. Many of the area’s residents worshiped at First Baptist Church, which had opened by 1913.
African Americans have more than a century of history in Venice. In fact, they helped build the town back in the early 1900s.
As recently as the 1980s, African Americans made up 9.6% of Venice’s population, according to a city Planning Department report. Many of them still lived in Oakwood. The neighborhood was largely ignored and suffered from crime and gang violence.
But about a decade later, in the mid-1990s, real-estate investors and home buyers discovered Venice, and Oakwood along with it. Black families were gradually priced out by rising rents or bought out by developers, many of whom razed wood-frame cottages and modest bungalows to make way for multi-story steel and concrete homes.
When I moved into the area in the late 1990s, African American families still flocked to the church, dressed in their Sunday best. Across the street at Oakwood Park, many of those same families barbecued, enjoyed picnics and celebrated birthdays. They were neighbors and an important part of our community.
Venice today is home to companies like Google and Snapchat, part of a booming Westside tech hub known as Silicon Beach. African Americans make up only 5.4% of the district’s residents, according to census data compiled by The Times.
“Very few original black families are left,” one longtime Oakwood resident, Jatuan Valentine, 81, told me recently. Valentine, a great-great-niece of Irving Tabor, added: “I see very few blacks [here] in the future.”
The First Baptist Church, after taking out millions of dollars in loans and suffering from declining membership, sold its property for $11.8 million in early 2017, according to court records. The church is slated for conversion to a spacious two-story home with a four-car garage spread over three lots, city planning documents show.
Neighbors have rallied to save the church, vowing to fight the project as it makes its way through the permit process. “This is about history, preservation and respecting the African American community,” said another Oakwood resident, Laddie Williams, as she and others protested in front of the church.
Williams is right. Venice was built on the sweat equity of black workers, but their descendants and other African Americans who followed can no longer afford to live here.
Robert J. Lopez is a journalist. He was part of a team of Los Angeles Times reporters that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for public service.
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