Los Angeles's Black Pride
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Out of the car and onto the sidewalk, I tracked the sound of jazz notes to the World Stage Performance Gallery, a storefront music joint on Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles's Leimert Park neighborhood. There, a caramel-colored man sporting a brightly colored dashiki and an Afro was jamming hard on a piano, making wonderful work of "Bitches Brew" and other early Miles Davis tunes.
From there I floated into Zambezi Bazaar, an Afrocentric boutique a few doors away. A "Free Angela Davis" poster hung by the front door and shelves held a selection of vintage publications: a 1963 Time magazine with a cover photo of novelist James Baldwin; a copy of Ebony magazine featuring an article about a rising young Chicago organizer named Jesse Jackson; dog-eared copies of William Grier and Price Cobb's "Black Rage," Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power" and other tomes from an earlier era.
Just about then, the 1970s child inside me was set free. This happens regularly to visitors in Leimert (pronounced la-MERT) Park.
This residential neighborhood and the small village at the center of it sit in the midst of Los Angeles's sprawl, seven miles southwest of downtown. It's one of the country's last strongholds of old-style African American culture and activism, with the happening ethnic flavor of Washington's pre-1968 U Street corridor. A world away from glitzy Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Leimert Park has a following that is solidly loyal, and apparently growing. A village Kwanzaa festival in December drew throngs of celebrants into the streets. Lively bongo drum jam sessions held in Leimert Plaza Park every Sunday are a major scene. Every weekend, fans of jazz or blues pile into the World Stage and other neighborhood music venues.
"People realize that what we have here is a rare scene, a preservation of our culture," said Richard Harris, co-owner of Lucy Florence Coffeehouse. "And so they come from all over Southern California to be a part of it."
Against the tide of rap, bling and other edgy cultural trends, many of the two dozen or so clubs and eateries here offer entertainment and eats more popular in an earlier era. At Babe's & Ricky's Inn, a dark, smoky club and neighborhood hangout, the rum is cheap and the bands favor the raw B.B. King and John Lee Hooker brand of blues. At the Kitchen, a dining spot beloved by locals, there is no miso soup, designer pizza or other trendy California fare on the menu. Instead it features fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and other Southern mainstays.
Many of the Leimert Park regulars were activists in the '60s and '70s who declined to give up the good fight -- like John Caldwell, a criminal defense lawyer in his forties whom I encountered on a street corner. "Other African American neighborhoods across the country have surrendered to gentrification," he said. "Even Harlem is going yuppie. But the revolution is still going on here. Anybody who believes in it can join us."
Despite its compact size (a few square blocks bounded roughly by Crenshaw Boulevard, 43rd Street, Leimert Boulevard and Vernon Avenue), a visitor could easily spend a couple of days hanging out in Leimert Park. Some months ago, I devoted most of a weekend to browsing the boutiques, listening to live jazz and blues, dining and grooving to an open-air bongo drum and dance free-for-all.
This is Southern California without the tinsel. Designed in the 1920s by landscape architect Frederick Olmsted Jr. (whose father brought us Central Park) as a planned community, the neighborhood consists mostly of pastel-colored Spanish stucco bungalows. Leimert Plaza Park is a small triangular space where many locals while away their afternoons. Magnolias, palms, maples and pines line the streets.
But it's the intimate clubs and shops along Degnan Boulevard and 43rd Street, the village's main thoroughfares, that make this place worth the trip for urban explorers. Filmmaker and Leimert Park resident John Singleton, best known as the creator of "Boyz 'N the Hood," has called it "the black Greenwich Village."
Leimert Park was originally an all-white, middle-class neighborhood, but African Americans starting staking out a place in the 1940s, when Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other stars bought homes there. In the 1970s, in the wake of the Watts riots, African American entrepreneurs started opening independent arts shops on the main streets. In spite of a recent influx of whites, Hispanics and Asians, black merchants are working to maintain the neighborhood's Afrocentric focus.
"We're not clinging to the past. We prefer to think of it as keeping the light of hope burning," explained Mary Kimbrough, co-owner of Zambezi Bazaar. A stylish woman with the allure of black singer and film star Lena Horne, she's a fixture in this village. As we stood chatting on the sidewalk, a half-dozen locals shouted out greetings.