L.A.’s Beguiling Idea: An African-American Arts Destination

Destination Crenshaw, proposed for Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of berlinrosen

“I live in South Central,” the activist gardener Ron Finley told the audience at a 2013 TED talk: “liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.” Finley was unconvinced by the city’s strategy to spiff up the area by giving it a new name, South Los Angeles. The result, he reported, was “liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.” Frustrated by neglect of a mythically troubled area, he tried a different tack, planting fruits and vegetables on a strip of sidewalk median in front of his house. He got more tangible results: strawberries, sunflowers, a change in city regulations that legalized what he had done, and dozens of other gardens feeding neighborhoods where grocery chains feared to tread.

Now Finley is helping to reshape one of historic South Central’s arteries, Crenshaw Boulevard, into a place where people want to linger, take pride, and spend money. Public transportation, immigration, tourism, gentrification, art, cultural identity, politics, and preservation—all these urban winds are converging on a deceptively generic thoroughfare, eight lanes of traffic flanked by strip malls and parking lots. Soon, a new light-rail line will buzz down the boulevard, connecting LAX with the Expo line, which runs between Santa Monica and downtown L.A.. And, in an attempt to batten down the neighborhood’s history and character in a hurricane of change, construction is about to start on Destination Crenshaw, an optimistic, uncertain stretch of public art, parks, plazas, and memorials.

At the southern end, near Slauson Avenue, is the local equivalent of the Hollywood sign, the Gateway Monument, a 120-foot totem that spells out Crenshaw in giant letters. In a nearby pocket park, canopies on poles, meant to evoke blades of African giant star grass, will sprout alongside existing palms. A sagging, mural-covered wall will be shored up, lit, and protected. More than 800 newly planted trees will cool the asphalt plain, where shade has long been a luxury. Artworks, from giant sculptures to painted electrical boxes, will transform the avenue into an outdoor gallery.

This project, designed by the architecture firm Perkins & Will, with landscapes by Studio MLA, is unlike anything else in Los Angeles: It’s a walkable mile, an explicitly black form of urbanism, and a vast outdoor art project galvanized by public transit. It is also free to enjoy and expensive to produce: $100 million, spent in roughly equal proportions on art, construction, and land, plus an endowment large enough to cover upkeep during the first few years. That’s generous for a landscaping and public art project, and a droplet of cash compared to the billions in infrastructure upgrades now being slathered on the metropolitan area ahead of the 2028 Olympics.

Photo: Courtesy of berlinrosen

As Los Angeles builds out its public transit system, the city is confronting the social and economic changes that come bundled with concrete and steel. In the past, freeways were rammed through low-income areas, isolating them with chasms of traffic. Neighbors were dislocated, businesses obliterated, trees uprooted, and economic futures stunted. Today, the growing Metro network pours cataracts of prosperity and gentrification into low-income neighborhoods. Residents who stuck it out during the grim years are finding that too much sudden attention can have the same consequences as disdain.

The Crenshaw/LAX light-rail line threatens both kinds of disruption. Running at grade along the boulevard, it will make the road even more of a moat. Early on, Metro officials declined to put in a stop at Leimert Park, the heart of the neighborhood. Local activists opened two simultaneous campaigns: to have the line buried, and to open a station of their own. They lost the first battle and won the second. But Destination Crenshaw’s planners want something more: to mix pragmatic, cultural, and even spiritual commitments—to set down a marker of blackness in a zone that has gradually changing complexion.

Back when it was still called South Central, this part of the city was a byword for urban dysfunction: the center of the 1992 riots, the battlefield of Crips and Bloods, and the location of John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood. It hasn’t shaken that reputation. Destination Crenshaw’s southern terminus sits half a block from the strip mall where the rapper Nipsey Hussle opened his Marathon Clothing flagship store, and where he was murdered last year. Gang violence has abated dramatically in the last 20 years, and continues to drop. Crips and Bloods negotiated a cease-fire in the wake of Hussle’s death. But this is still a high-crime area, and Los Angeles City Council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson sees Destination Crenshaw as a social experiment.

“L.A. has pioneered the science of gang intervention, and because of there’s now a basis for an interaction with street organizations, we can get their buy-in and participation,” he says. “Gang members may work there, use the performance spaces, or open up small businesses. We’re inviting them to participate, rather than waiting for them to intervene on their own.” The project is partly a job training program. While public agencies in Los Angeles are prohibited from race-based preferences, the non-profit group that’s building and will operate Destination Crenshaw plans to hire local residents and hopes to steer them into construction careers.

A 20-minute walk (or a five-minute drive) north from the future Gateway Monument, Crenshaw swerves around Leimert Park Plaza, and the project ends at a landscaped triangle, to be called Sankofa Park. The West African concept of Sankofa, or moving forward while honoring the past, is often represented by a long-necked bird that turns back on itself as it marches and carries an egg its beak. The architects worked those symbolic elements—processional, pause, twist, and backward glance—in the design of a sloping walkway that loops around to face the direction it came from.

“It’s wide enough to be a real place for gathering, sitting, and hanging out,” says Zena Howard, who worked on David Adjaye’s design of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and now manages Perkins & Will’s boutique cultural remembrance design team. The ramp literalizes the craving for uplift, rising gently above the streets. “There are places to sit, stop, and look down at the events happening below. We even designed it so you could bring back the Sundays with the lowriders and have a show.”

The plan. Photo: Courtesy of BerlinRosen

If it seems odd to think of an elevated pedestrian plaza as a platform from which to look at cars, it helps to remember among one of South Central’s most celebrated cultural expressions are the lowrider custom cars that once jammed the boulevard on Sundays, cruising slowly or simply parked, blasting music, and doing their hydraulic hops. Since the early 2000s, the boulevard has seen a low-grade standoff between the police who try to shut down the parades on Crenshaw and the car clubs that claim it as their ancestral lands.

Destination Crenshaw is where grass-roots community organizing like Finley’s meets a top-down citywide effort to coax Angelenos onto the subway, buses, and trains. And yet the project is partly tailored to cars. Of the 100 or so spots that could accommodate artistic interventions, ten will be massive sculptures, designed to make a visual impact at 25 miles per hour. “We’re not thinking about the visitor experience as a linear one,” says Howard. “It’s 1.3 miles, so the chances of someone walking the whole way are low.”

That comment suggests a distinct lack of confidence in Californians’ legs. The High Line is slightly longer, and roughly 8 million file along it every year. Even in L.A., lots of locals bike, skate, and walk the beachfront ribbon of pavement between Marina del Rey and Santa Monica. Still, Harris-Dawson contends that thinking of Destination Crenshaw as an asphalt hiking trail betrays an East Coast mentality. “The pedestrian experience will be at the intersections and nodes,” he says. “That’s about all the walking Angelenos are going to do. Something like the Freedom Walk in Boston—Angelenos don’t do that.”

Destination Crenshaw plants one foot in the master-planned neighborhood of Leimert Park, which the developer Walter Leimert conceived as a whites-only upper-middle-class town in 1928. (Real estate people always did like to name their creations after themselves.) After World War II, the blocks around the verdant square grew into the heart of black L.A., a distinction it is trying hard to preserve. Public space in this city is scarce and often contested. When the city moved to renovate the small park at the center of Leimert Plaza and enclose it with a fence and a “decorative gate,” some neighbors saw it as an example of jumping straight from longtime neglect to concern for gentrifying whites. “At the core of the objections to the city’s plan is renewed anxiety about the fate of unfettered black space,” wrote Erin Aubry Kaplan, then a columnist for the Los Angeles Times (and now at the New York Times).

This is not the first time that the community has memorialized itself in public installations. A dozen years ago, Sankofa Passage opened along Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park, a kind of black history version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with plaques and stylized lizards embedded in the sidewalk.  This time, the plan is more elaborately curated and three-dimensional. Various themes pop up along Crenshaw in artworks, historical markers, and online information accessible by scanning QR codes on a phone. “Improvisation” invokes the legacy of jazz and hip hop. “Firsts” pays homage to figures like Biddy Mason, a former slave who moved to Los Angeles, bought land, and, in 1872, founded the city’s first black church.

Activists and politicians have conceived Destination Crenshaw as an outlet for a constructive form of grievance, a way to compensate for decades of official indifference. At the same time, they bring a clear-eyed understanding that art, architecture, and landscape design can only go so far in deflecting powerful social and economic trends. “If we do nothing, we know what will happen: Crenshaw will not be an African American community.” That’s not just a function of recent gentrification: Over the course of a generation, large swaths of South Los Angeles become majority Latino. A true halt to those changes, says Harris-Dawson, “would take a dramatic reversal in housing trends that no one is predicting.”

That makes the upcoming groundbreaking a bittersweet success, because the same accomplishment that can help anchor a fragile community might also wind up memorializing it. “Unless you mark and present the culture of black L.A., which is what art does, it gets washed over,” says Harris-Dawson. We want folks all over the city to recognize this area as an autonomous black space, so that everybody guards that identity, in the same way that everybody guards the identity of Chinatown or Little Tokyo or Fairfax. I’m not Jewish and I’ve never lived in Fairfax, but if someone goes in there and says we’re going to put a headquarters of a major corporation there, I would fight against it. What we’re doing isn’t just placemaking; it’s placekeeping.”

And yet, as in so many parts of the country, it’s difficult to disentangle the processes that are raising people up from those that are pushing them out. Marathon Clothing has closed and the lot’s been fenced off, a demoralizing sign but also a prelude to building Nipsey Hussle Tower, the mixed-use development that Hussle had already planned. “People ask if we’re doing this for the white people who are going to replace us,” Finley says. “And the answer is no. I want this for me. I want the nice lighting and landscaping that we’ve asked for and never been able to get. I want the avocado toast to appear in my hand.”

L.A.’s Beguiling Idea: An African-American Arts Destination