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Crenshaw Boulevard rising

For decades, the ’Shaw has been the historic main street of black Los Angeles. Now the communities fighting to celebrate its legacy are ready to make it “unapologetically black”

Crenshaw Boulevard starts in the middle of bustling, concrete Los Angeles at Wilshire Boulevard and ends in the untamed, unearthly natural beauty of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a little more than 23 miles away. In between, the heartbeat of historically black Los Angeles pulses at such landmarks as Dulan’s Soul Food, the Los Angeles Sentinel, West Angeles Church, Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, and the Paul R. Williams-designed Angelus Funeral Home, where the bodies of director John Singleton and rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle were recently prepared.

At Crenshaw and 50th is the epic Great Wall of Crenshaw, a series of murals depicting black Americans’ contributions to history, created by the street art collective Rocking the Nation in 2000.

“Crenshaw Boulevard is the main street of black LA. Has been, still is, and hopefully always will be,” says Nina Revoyr, activist and author of the acclaimed 2003 novel Southland. “It is a boulevard of both aspiration and disappointments.”

The first section of Crenshaw Boulevard sprang out of the calculated aspirations of Missouri-born developer George L. Crenshaw. In the early 1900s, he began to develop the grand neighborhood of Lafayette Square in the Mid-City section of Los Angeles, then undeveloped ranch land. He decided to name one of the main streets running alongside the development after himself. “In those days, you just went down to City Hall and signed a little slip and that was it,” his grandson Charles Crenshaw told the Los Angeles Times in 2003.

In 1918, a new dirt street, Angeles Mesa Drive, was finished, linking up to Crenshaw Boulevard:

Angeles Mesa Drive, the new short cut route between southwest Los Angeles and the city-to-sea boulevards, is now open to the motoring public from Slauson Avenue to West Adams Street. The new highway shortens by miles the traveling distance between Hyde Park Inglewood, and Redondo districts to the south and southwest of Los Angeles and the west beaches, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

During the building boom of the 1920s, Angeles Mesa Drive gained in importance, as it became the suburban site of new sprawling planned communities. “The paving of Angeles Mesa Drive, is part of a comprehensive plan for the creation of another north-and-south artery beginning at Wilshire Blvd. and extending to the paved county highway a mile south of Adams Street,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1924. “First steps for the widening of Crenshaw Blvd, of which the Angeles Mesa Drive is a southerly continuance have already been taken.”

In 1925, the Los Angeles Investment Company opened tracts for the upper-class neighborhood of View Park, on the slopes of Baldwin Hills alongside Angeles Mesa Drive. In 1927, the Walter H. Leimert Company hired the pedigreed firm of Olmsted and Olmsted to lay out its planned self-sustaining “community of tomorrow” on 600 acres skirting the boulevard.

Called Leimert Park, this idyllic community featured tree lined streets of elegant homes and apartments designed by architects including Richard Neutra and Sumner Spaulding. In 1932, the Stiles O. Clements-designed Leimert Theater opened in the community’s commercial center. In 1929, Crenshaw Boulevard and Angeles Mesa Drive were finally coalesced into one megastreet.

The Angelus Funeral Home is one stand-out building on Crenshaw, and it was designed by architect Paul R. Williams. It’s also where the bodies of Nipsey Hussle and John Singleton were served.

Due to redlining and racially restrictive housing covenants that kept non-whites from living in all but a few areas in LA, the neighborhoods and businesses along what came to be known as “the ’Shaw” were predominantly populated by middle and upper-class white residents. But after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the racist covenants in 1948, large numbers of successful Japanese Americans began to move into the neighborhoods along Crenshaw. Soon many more black families bought homes in the area as well.

This was an era of great promise for black Angelenos, says longtime Leimert Park resident Lynetta McElroy. “When you talk to some of the older people who came from different areas they said something about Los Angeles blacks was different than anywhere else,” McElroy says. “They had this look. They had fine cars, fine clothes, they had their own clubs. Black culture was rich.”

The addition of these two rich cultures would usher in a golden age of multicultural community on Crenshaw Boulevard. McElroy, who is of African American and Jewish descent, recalls her mother taking her to the annual Japanese-American celebration of Nisei Week in Crenshaw Square. “You would have Japanese dancing and music, food and a carnival,” she says. “You had all the cultures just right here. The ladies were in kimonos, and they were dancing and singing, and they invited the onlookers to learn the dances and sing along.”

McElroy and her African American and Japanese American friends at Crenshaw High also frequented the legendary Holiday Bowl. Perhaps no establishment exemplified the Crenshaw District’s diversity more than this bowling alley and coffee shop at the intersection of 37th and Crenshaw. Designed in the Googie Style by the architect Helen Liu Fong for the firm Armet and Davis, the bowl was opened in 1948 by four Japanese investors. (It was demolished in 2003.) According to KCET’s Ryan Reft:

Early on many of the bowling teams consisted of local Japanese farmers, grocers, and merchants, all of whom competed in divisions that suited their profession: the Gardener’s League, the Produce League, and the Floral League, to name a few. When the area began absorbing greater numbers of African Americans… the teams changed as well. “[M]y team has one black, one Italian, another Japanese, and Korean Sponsor,” Floral League member Dorothy Tanabe told the Los Angeles Times.

Throughout the decades, the Holiday Bowl would continue to be what one longtime employee referred to as a “United Nations.” A high school aged McElroy and her girlfriends spent an intense six weeks at the hangout learning to bowl, determined to earn a letter for their Crenshaw High jackets (she earned it—and still has it today). During the 1970s and ’80s, “that was the go to spot,” says Gina Fields, who grew up all along Crenshaw and lives today in Leimert Park. “It was definitely a cultural hub.”

Revoyr, who is of Japanese American descent, remembers her very first trip to the bowl. “Seeing African American and Japanese American folks of my grandparents age all hanging out together in a coffee shop in such a way that it became clear that these were friendships that existed for decades. That was so beautiful to me,” she says. “Going into the Holiday Bowl and seeing Japanese food and Southern food on the same menu, I just loved that.”

The “Great Wall of Crenshaw” is an important mural that spans 800 feet and incorporates images and icons from black history across the ages.

So important was the Holiday Bowl to the community that during the LA Uprising in the summer of 1992, Rodney King joined with other locals to protect the business from looters, telling potential troublemakers that the bowl was “our place.”

“When I think about Crenshaw—in particular, when I think about a place like the Holiday Bowl, and that whole strip right there, it represents the best version of a polyglot LA—people who are both very, very clear and very proud of who they are as individuals and families, but also who can feel part of a larger collective whole in a way that’s cross racial,” Revoyr says.

The Japanese American influence can still be seen in the bonsai trees and plantings in the yards of the small Mediterranean and Spanish style homes off Crenshaw. However, by the late 1960s, many of the communities surrounding Crenshaw Boulevard, from wealthy View Park, Lafayette Square, and Baldwin Hills to working-class Inglewood, had become mainly associated with black Angelenos.

Black-owned businesses flourished, while farther down the ’Shaw in Hawthorne, aerospace companies offered good employment for many local residents. Glass-plated, modernist car dealerships opened up and down Crenshaw Bouelvard, providing more employment for South LA residents.

Every year, the Martin Luther King Day Parade would travel down Crenshaw Boulevard (it now goes through King Boulevard), and the community would come out to watch. “I remember playing my flute in the band as the Audubon Elementry School band walked down Crenshaw Boulevard,” Fields says. “Later I became a naval cadet and marched with the Youth Naval Cadet when I was 15, and we got all dressed up in our dress uniforms, and it was just such a proud feeling to be able to march... down Crenshaw Boulevard with the crowd cheering.”

Leimert Park became an artistic mecca for artists, artisans, and venues, such as the famed blues club Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn. Its small village green just off Crenshaw Boulevard became a community gathering place for festivals, jazz concerts, and press conferences. At the hip cave-like musical venue Maverick’s Flat, acts like the Ike and Tina Turner Review, The Temptations, Billy Preston, and Parliament-Funkadelic played packed shows while locals and celebrities like Marlon Brando, Sonny Liston, Steve McQueen, and Muhammad Ali danced along.

Many fly dancers at Maverick’s Flat would appear on Soul Train, which debuted in 1970, and transported South LA cool across the country. Host Don Cornelius would also source telegenic and talented dancers from local Crenshaw area high schools. Musician Patrice Rushen recalled in the LA Times hanging out at a local park only to be approached by none other than Cornelius himself. “Anybody who wants to go, we’ll have buses and take you to the TV studio,” he told the high schoolers. “All you’ve got to do is come on the show and dance.”

Young men talk to three young women in their car at the usual gathering spot along Crenshaw Blvd on a Sunday afternoon in 1996.
Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

It was also during this same period, while the Soul Train bus picked up dancers on the ’Shaw, that young men and women began cruising Crenshaw Boulevard on Sunday nights, showing off their tricked lowriders and speaker systems. By the 1980s, cruising had become a weekly ritual on the ’Shaw. “I would come home from Berkeley for the summer and Crenshaw Boulevard was just lively!” Fields says. “You’d see all these low riders, decked out cars, parked in front of the Wienerschnitzel. And we’d hang out. And my mom was like ‘You know you’re not over there hanging out on Crenshaw!’ ‘No Mom.’ And my sister and I were out there—hanging out with all the lowrider cars. It was just such a fun neighborhood.”

Cruising reached its peak in the early 1990s, when more than a thousand cars would jam Crenshaw Boulevard, from Jefferson Boulevard to Florence Avenue. Faced with mounting pressure by frustrated Crenshaw Boulevard business owners and civic leaders, in 1994 the LAPD began to barricade 3.5 miles of Crenshaw, from Adams to 78th street, every Sunday night. But this and other deterrents had little effect, with cruisers simply going farther south on Crenshaw or taking side streets. In April 1995, a popular Banning High football player named Dupree Taye was shot and killed in a random act of violence when the red Ford Thunderbird he was cruising in got a flat tire.

Violence would become an epidemic during the late 1980s and early ’90s, as gangs and drugs and social, educational, and economic inequities wreaked havoc on many communities in South Los Angeles.

During this time period, Crenshaw Boulevard would become legendary in popular culture, with films such as Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood, and artists from the area including Eazy-E, Ice-T, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre rapping about the hard realities that faced many South LA youth. There also more lighthearted homegrown acts like Skee-Lo, who penned an ode to Sunday night cruising on the 1995 track “Crenshaw”:

Who me I’m Skee, I rap and produce

Pull over I wanna know you and my crew wants to know your crew

Now how them cheeks fit in the seat of that Jeep

See this is type of freak that could be cool for me

I like her style she like my style I make her smile she think I’m funny

Won’t front it be pump rollin Crenshaw on Sunday

After the LA Uprising, some middle class black Angelenos left South LA for safer areas in the city. Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Latinos began to arrive in greater numbers, and some of the boulevard’s historically black-owned businesses began to close. Years of disinvestment in resources and infrastructure by the city and state also took their toll.

The “Great Wall of Crenshaw” is an important mural that spans 800 feet and incorporates images and icons from black history across the ages.

In 2008, the construction of the 8.5-mile Crenshaw/LAX light rail line was announced by Metro. Although a fight to add a stop at Leimert Park, called by Singleton “the black Greenwich Village,” was successful, the plan deeply polarized communities along Crenshaw Boulevard. This and the encroaching gentrification of areas like Leimert Park led to the formation of Destination Crenshaw, a planned 1.3-mile cultural district spanning Crenshaw Boulevard from 48 to 60th streets.

“Destination Crenshaw came about as a result of conversations related to the building of the Crenshaw/LAX Metro line and the controversy in the community that remains to this day about the portion between Hyde Park and Leimert Park being built at grade,” says Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who grew up visiting his grandfather at his real estate operations on Crenshaw Boulevard. “Folks were very, very upset. Folks were like, ‘this is the African American community’s major street.’ In no other major street in Southern California does Metro build rail at grade.”

Building at grade would cause major disruption on the street, splitting it in two and making it less a walkable main street and more like a drive-though thoroughfare. Community and civic leaders decided to turn what they saw as an insult into an opportunity. “Folks came up with the idea of an open-air people’s museum,” Harris-Dawson says. “The African American history of Los Angeles is extremely rich—as rich as any city in the country. And that there ought to be a place, like we have Chinatown, like we have the Fairfax district, like we have Little Tokyo, like we have San Pedro... that calls out the contributions of African Americans building this region.”

Targeted to be completed in spring 2020, Destination Crenshaw will include 100 permanent art installations extolling the history and culture of black Angelenos. The Leimert Theater is being fully restored and modernized, and there are plans for a public amphitheater and 10 new parks and miniparks.

The architecture firm of Perkins and Will will oversee the design and construction. Landscape design will be provided by Studio-MLA. “What we hope is that we build a cultural hub and that people can actually consume African American culture in these locations,” Harris-Dawson says. New housing is being built along the under-construction Crenshaw/LAX line, and efforts to spruce up the boulevard can be seen all around, including in the planned restoration of the Great Wall of Crenshaw.

“With Destination Crenshaw, our working tagline was ‘unapologetically black,’” says Ron Finley, an artist and community activist known as the Gangsta Gardener. “There’s nothing in Los Angeles that celebrates black Los Angeles. Destination Crenshaw is going to be just that. It is going to be proudly, historically black—it’s going to be super black.”

Another community partner involved in Destination Crenshaw was the rapper, philanthropist, and civic leader Nipsey Hussle. On March 31, Hussle was murdered outside his Marathon Clothing Store on Slauson Avenue, just off Crenshaw. His death devastated both the old and young in South LA.

Mural of Nipsey Hussle on the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson.

“He was a guy who saw beauty in a place that other people just dismissed as unworthy and desolate and as less than,” Revoyr says. “And I think that in elevating the Crenshaw area with his obvious love and respect, he made the young people who live there feel that they were respected.”

But those leading Destination Crenshaw are determined Hussle’s innovative work and ideas will live on. “He had this project and this program called ‘All Money In,’” Harris-Dawson says. “Our community creates value, especially in the realm of culture. Except the community doesn’t benefit from the creation of that value, and so if young people in South LA make a sneaker popular or a t-shirt popular, you then have to go to Melrose to buy the t-shirt!”

Through Destination Crenshaw and other programs, the councilmember aims to bring money and foot traffic onto Crenshaw Boulevard, creating value that stays within South Los Angeles. “I think that there’s great potential with the Metro line,” Revoyr says. “More people are going to be coming through Crenshaw hopefully with the line opening… and the Destination Crenshaw project should be a draw.”

But there are concerns. “There is understandably a lot of anxiety about what that’s going to do to property in terms of affordability,” Revoyr says. There is also still much work to be done on other parts of Crenshaw Boulevard. “As you go farther south... the disinvestment of public resources becomes more and more evident.”

Longtime residents like Fields and McElroy also worry that the rail line, along with gentrification and development in single-family neighborhoods, will obliterate their close-knit feel and its rich heritage.

“We all know each other. We all watch out for each other. I recognize every neighbor on my street... Despite the fact that it’s in the middle of a big city smack dab in the middle of a very large city, [Leimert Park] is this cute small little neighborhood that’s fun to just walk around and wander around and just meet people,” Fields says.” I hope that with all the progress that’s being proposed and all the developments that are coming that we’re able to maintain the uniqueness of the neighborhood.”

Along with these vibrant patches of community and culture, there are stretches of the boulevard almost like ghost towns, where boarded up businesses are the norm. For Revoyr, Crenshaw Boulevard remains a street of contradictions. “You see these buildings and these places of great beauty and great promise and then you have at Crenshaw and Slauson Nipsey Hussle murdered in front of his store,” she says. The ’Shaw is a street rich in history, art, commerce and culture, but it has the potential to be so much more.

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