It’s being touted as the most comprehensive Black public art project in the country: a mile-plus-long beautification and cultural preservation effort in the heart of historic Black Los Angeles that feels long overdue. 

Many proposed developments in the Crenshaw area have generated controversy over the years, but Destination Crenshaw leaves little to argue with. Incorporated in 2017 as a nonprofit with the purpose of celebrating the history and culture of Black Los Angeles, Destination Crenshaw runs 1.3 miles along Crenshaw between 46th Street and Slauson Avenue, following the route of the Crenshaw/LAX rail line. The beautification plan calls for new sidewalks, 30,000 square feet of landscaping, six pocket parks, 800 trees and “culturally stamped” street furniture that includes seating, shade structures, bike racks and signage. 

But the crown jewel of the Destination Crenshaw project is 100-plus works by Black artists, including Obama’s official portraitist, Kehinde Wiley, and Kisasi Ramsess, whose art and graphics studio was part of the historically Black art scene in nearby Leimert Park. It’s a rare blend of bureaucracy and grassroots, a city-sponsored project that got its impetus from the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, Crenshaw’s most famous ambassador, who invested in the area as a center of entrepreneurial and cultural growth in a city where the Black population has been shrinking for decades. Boosters see Destination Crenshaw as turning that tide as an “unapologetically Black” project that will do triple duty in “claiming space, building economic opportunity and honoring our story.”

It’s a rare blend of bureaucracy and grassroots, a city-sponsored project that got its impetus from the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.

“The project will act as a counterbalance to gentrification by supporting legacy businesses and fostering a Black creative and economic hub,” says 8th District Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. At long last, he says, Destination Crenshaw will prove that “Black Los Angeles isn’t a place to pass through, it’s a place to be.”

These words are a stirring pledge of Black permanence. But in the context of gentrification that encroaches year after year, they overpromise and raise more questions that they can answer. A striking Black mural on the side of a new apartment building on 43rd Street that few Black people can afford to rent is a mixed message, to say the least. On that building and others, it feels as if the art is literally giving cover to the hard reality of displacement. Destination Crenshaw has been called “a people’s open-air museum,” a wonderful thought that by definition speaks solely to the past, not the future.  

While Destination Crenshaw speaks to an important history, it also speaks to missed opportunities. The soul of Crenshaw is Leimert Park Village, where a concentration of Black galleries, studios, eateries and jazz spots flourished, against the odds, through the ’80s and ’90s. But the scene — which once attracted global attention — was never really built up. Merchants in the village have had to fight to stay upright, because of rent hikes, sporadic foot traffic, indifferent political leadership and now, gentrification that threatens to squeeze out longtimers. (Eso Won Books, a core business along Degnan, closed its brick-and-mortar store last year). The upshot is that the prospects of the Crenshaw community as Los Angeles’ remaining Black hub remain as much in question as they were 32 years ago, when Crenshaw was badly damaged by civil unrest. 

Michael Anderson, an architect who does projects in Black and brown neighborhoods, says the stagnation of the Leimert Park scene reflects the stagnation of Crenshaw as a whole. Art is a great brand, he says, “but it’s hard to preserve Black culture if you don’t have that culture growing.” Anderson notes that the many small Black businesses along the project’s stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard have been faltering for years. The fact that the Crenshaw/LAX metro rail line runs down the middle of the boulevard, separating one side from the other, doesn’t help; indeed, Destination Crenshaw has been described as a kind of reparation for the light rail construction’s blow to already struggling businesses. But the real issue has been a lack of growth. “There are no daytime salaries,” says Anderson. “There’s household income in Crenshaw, but you need an 18-hour economy, one that starts in the morning and ends late at night.”

The scope of Destination Crenshaw may be unique, but advocating culture as a way to create Black permanence is not. 

“You need more antigentrification policies and protections. I’d be more excited about Destination Crenshaw if it had that.”

Since the ’90s, activists have pushed to rename Leimert Park Village Africatown or African-American Village, to establish not just an identity but also to attract the tourism dollars of other ethnic enclaves that dot L.A., such as Chinatown and Little Tokyo. Destination Crenshaw’s chief operating officer, Jason Foster, says the project will indeed foster cultural tourism, among other things, which is great if Crenshaw remained Black, but not so great if it merely serves as marketing for non-Black folks who continue to move here. The same dynamic can be seen in nearby Inglewood, another rapidly gentrifying space where Black-created public art and signage boast of empowerment that Black residents don’t yet have.

“You need rent control for people and businesses,” says Damien Goodmon, founder of Liberty Community Land Trust, an antigentrification nonprofit that buys land in and around Crenshaw to preserve it for community use. “You need more antigentrification policies and protections. I’d be more excited about Destination Crenshaw if it had that.” Goodmon says “there is a legitimate story about Black history and culture” that can and should be told through art. But he adds, “Artists need low rent. They’re not supported.” 

Black people constitute a disproportionate percentage of the unhoused in Los Angeles, a crisis that Goodmon says should be driving any effort at community improvement, artistic or otherwise. “We should be asking: Are people living in Section 8 housing better off? Is the working class growing? Are they living a better life?” he says.  

“We have to reorient our thinking. Meanwhile, Black places are becoming extinct.”

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