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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 25 April 2007

 LOS ANGELES -- With rows of Afro-centric boutiques, cafes and soul food restaurants shaded by tall old trees, Leimert Park has become a serene enclave in the 15 years since a race riot tore apart its neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles.

Under the surface, things aren't so calm. But today's escalating neighborhood tension has nothing to do with the outrage that boiled into rioting when several White police officers were acquitted in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King on April 29, 1992.

This time, it's a fight over the area itself -- how it should be defined and who should live and work there.

Merchants who revived Leimert Park (pronounced la-MERT) as a Black cultural hub are battling government officials, developers and other shop owners who have a vision for bringing in new shoppers and residents.

Leimert Park Village is a Black bohemia where shoppers browse through stacks of books by Black authors, artisans peddle Ghanaian kente cloths and African wood carvings and residents debate local politics at a quiet coffee house over slices of fresh-baked sweet potato pie and listen to live jazz at a nightclub.

Mary Kimbrough, 65, opened Zambezi Bazaar in Leimert with her sister, Jackie Ryan, 70, in 1991, selling everything from old copies of Negro Digest, a predecessor to Ebony magazine, to earrings and statues from Africa.

"What other place has 90 African-American business owners within a block-and-a-half radius?" Kimbrough said.

But the sisters believe the city is trying to replace Black-oriented businesses with businesses catering to wealthier White customers as a means of boosting tax revenue.

"The whole thing is to remove Black people," Ryan said.

Councilman Bernard Parks is concerned that the specialized shops suffer by appealing to a limited clientele.

"So Leimert Park doesn't die on the vine, it needs to attract the type of business that drives them there every night," said Parks, who is Black and a former Los Angeles police chief. "Normally (people) will not go every night to Leimert Park to buy this unique Afro-centric trinket."

A preliminary study by the City Redevelopment Agency suggested construction of new housing above existing shops, possible upscale condos and attracting national chain stores.

Merchants have fought back by drafting their own proposal that includes an African-American museum and library, mom-and-pop restaurants and a few national chains, but no condos. They also are seeking a city designation as a "historical preservation zone," which would limit construction.

They argue that preserving Leimert Park is vital because historically Black South Central already has undergone big demographic shifts in the last decade, with middle-class Black families moving to suburbs and being replaced by Hispanic immigrants.

"When you look at the city you have Olvera Street for the Hispanic community and Little Tokyo for the Japanese community, you have Chinatown for the Chinese community and Fairfax for the Jewish community," said Faadil Asadullah, owner of the craft shop Africa By the Yard. "You don't see a lot of effort in redevelopment of these hubs, so why are we targeted?"

Similar gentrification has changed Black cultural centers across the country, including New York's 125th Street, where chain stores and fast food restaurants now crowd Black cultural relics like the Apollo Theater and the Lenox Lounge jazz club.

Market forces already are changing Leimert Park. Developers have bought up several buildings, boosting property values and rents.

When Kimbrough and Ryan opened their 1,200-square-foot store they paid $595 a month, but the building was sold four years ago for $1.5 million and they now pay $2,000 a month. Any more hikes, and they say they may have to move.

Laura Hendrix, 68, owner of the Gallery Plus art gallery, meets nearly every week with other members of the Save Leimert Park coalition to brainstorm ideas to beat back gentrification. Hendrix said she has stayed in business by selling more expensive art, and because her landlord has kept the rent low.

"These rents will run people away if they don't get busy," she said of the merchants. "The artists, the music, the culture, that's what makes the area what it is. The developers come in and want to build condos and make it all slick."

Not every business owner sees change as threatening.

"If you have a lot more people living here, you have a built-in customer base," said James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won bookstore.

Odell Farris, who took over her ex-husband's tailor shop when he got sick last year, is encouraging fellow merchants to negotiate with developers so the area can grow without losing its appeal and history.

"This is like a hurricane," said Farris, 73. "You can't stop it. All you can do is try to protect yourself."



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