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‘We are at war’: Crenshaw residents organizing to fight development

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The Crenshaw Subway Coalition has a new base for community organizing in Leimert Park village

A room filled with community members listening to a man speak.
The fourth meeting of Crenshaw Subway Coalition’s “Summer of Resistant” town hall meetings in Leimert Park.
Jessica Flores

About 30 South LA residents filled a room with colorful murals—including a depiction of a raised black fist and a broken chain hanging from it, a symbol of solidarity and reference to the black power salute—to learn about the redevelopment of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, where many locals have shopped their whole lives.

Damien Goodmon, executive director of Crenshaw Subway Coalition, lead the meeting at the organization’s new headquarters, The Umoja Center in Leimert Park village.

“This is not a mall redevelopment,” Goodmon told the group. “This is a housing development.” Heads nodded in disappointment.

Wednesday’s meeting was the fourth in a series designed to inform residents about six major developments in South LA’s Crenshaw district and educate them about gentrification.

The coalition initially focused on making changes to Metro projects that its members believed would benefit South LA, including the addition of a Crenshaw Line stop in Leimert Park village. In the past couple of years, it has turned its attention to development. In 2017, in partnership with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, it hosted the “Resist Gentrification Action Summit,” which, according to the LA Sentinel, drew a crowd of more than 700 people.

The group has its finger on the pulse of the community. Gentrification is shaping up to be the dominant issue in the race to replace Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in November 2020, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We are at war,” read the subject line of a newsletter announcing the coalition’s summer line-up.

“Our historic Black working class community is under attack from gentrification, speculators and developers who want to profit off the community we built,” the letter read. “It is long past the time for black politicians to ‘get right’ or get to packing! Our community has a decision to make: Rise up! ...or we might as well pack up.”

If Goodmon is waging war, his base is the Umoja Center, a word that means “unity” in Swahili. Opened in July, it is the organization’s first physical space designed for community organizing, art, and activism. Goodmon says they’ll sustain operations through monthly donations.

“This place is for all of you,” he told Wednesday’s audience. “A place to stay unapologetically black.”

So far, they’ve discussed the Dorset Village development, the demolition plans for Nipsey Hussle Square, and a fence around the village park that the city has planned to beautify.

But, by far, one of the largest development proposals is the expansion of the mall.

In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council approved plans from Chicago-based Capri Capital Partners to build offices and more restaurants and retail space, along with a 400-room hotel and 961 new condos and apartments at the shopping center at Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards. Ten percent of the condos will be set aside as work-force housing and 10 percent of the rentals will be designated affordable for low-income residents.

The inclusion of low-income units came at the request of Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the area. He did not return messages seeking comment by publication time, but has said that “it will provide the kind of investment that South Los Angeles deserves.”

While some residents and elected officials are eager for the local job opportunities it would bring, others are worried that it will lead to higher housing costs. That’s a concern that’s deepening as developer interest in the area grows, and as Metro prepares to open a new light rail line, named the Crenshaw Line, that will run through South LA starting next year.

Pastel illustration of people mingling ad eating outdoors at tables under umbrellas in a landscaped plaza with a large fountain in the center. They’re surrounded on two sides by two-story buildings filled with shops and restaurants.
A rendering of the project planned to revamp the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall.
Via Department of City Planning

Last year, UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs released a report tracking economic progress in South LA over the past 50 years and found wide inequality persists on multiple fronts, including housing.

According to the report, fewer than one in three South LA residents own their home and 42 percent of renters in the region are “rent-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. Countywide, the figure is 31 percent.

According to Zillow, the median home value in 2015 was $310,000. Today, it’s at $494,400.

But Paul Ong, who authored the economic study on South LA, says he expects housing costs to rise in the area around the Crenshaw Mall as the adjacent Metro station opens.

“We certainly see that there are particular interests in developing that area that would lead to upscaling,” and with that, comes displacement, Ong says.

Wendy Ruiz, a resident of South LA, learned about Crenshaw Subway Coalition meeting through Facebook. She says she attended Wednesday’s meeting to support Crenshaw residents.

Ruiz used to live in West Adams but she said she moved farther south because of the rising cost of rent and could relate to Crenshaw residents’ fears. “This is a culture space, and I think that it should be protected, and the rest of us should support that,” she said.

Baldwin Hills resident Jerome Wiley said developers need to make rents accessible for residents who already live in the neighborhood.

“There’s nothing wrong with [wanting] market-rate rent,” he said. “[But] I want to make sure that growth is equitable and that it benefits people who are currently in the community,” he says.

Wiley says he attended because he wants to make sure that the developments don’t push residents out of the area.

As the meeting drew to a close, Goodmon asked residents to sign up for one or all of Crenshaw Subway Coalition’s committees: a land use oversight committee in charge of reviewing and “making demands” of real estate developers; a community wealth building committee responsible for promoting land trust cooperative; and a Umoja center committee that will oversee the headquarter’s maintenance.

“As an organization in this space, the center of the resistance movement for black people, we are going to continue bringing on new troops,” Goodmon said.