On the Saturday of Juneteenth weekend, the city of Los Angeles held a ribbon-cutting to acknowledge a key part of its Black history. Mayor Karen Bass and a host of other Black dignitaries, including Kareem Adbul-Jabbar and LaToya Cantrell,  the mayor of New Orleans, stood on an outdoor stage to christen the seven-block stretch of Jefferson Boulevard between 3rd and 10th avenues as New Orleans Corridor. For my family and many others, the designation was long overdue.

Starting in the ’50s, Jefferson was the cultural and commercial hub for black èmigrès from Louisiana, notably Creoles from New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. The boulevard featured everything from a barber shop to a bakery to eateries, such as Harold and Belle’s. This event was also personal for me: my father, Larry Aubry, was a career racial-justice advocate whose family hailed from segregated New Orleans, as did my mother’s. My uncle Leon owned Aubry’s Barber Shop, and my cousin co-owns Harold and Belle’s. After the dedication, the crowd, many of whom wore Mardi Gras beads or waved fancy umbrellas, sashayed the mile to Harold and Belle’s in a traditional second line, accompanied by a lively New Orleans-style brass band. It was a joyous, spontaneous affirmation of family, history and community. 

Yet, it was also a confirmation of the fact that, with the exception of Harold and Belle’s, there is no New Orleans scene here anymore. In our celebratory dance down the corridor we passed not one Louisiana-themed business. It hit me: The scene we were there to venerate was a thing of the past and has been for some time. This was more like a funeral, a true second line in the Louisiana tradition. We had gathered not to laud the present or extol the future, but memorialize the past.

It hit me: The scene we were there to venerate was a thing of the past and has been for some time.

Black L.A. is not entirely in the past, but it is vanishing. This is not news. The erosion has been happening for decades, for many reasons: huge demographic shifts that have resulted in the percentage of Black residents dropping from a high of roughly 20% in the ’70s to under 8% today; Black out-migration into suburbs and out of the state, and, lately, gentrification and a ruthlessly expensive housing market that has made living here particularly difficult for Black folks (consider the fact that the homeless population is fully 50% Black). 

Ironically, the erosion is accelerating just as racial justice is finally on the political agenda in a way it hasn’t been since the ’60s, thanks to the explosion of racial consciousness following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the mainstreaming of the idea that Black Lives Matter. But a renewed racial consciousness alone has not reversed the trend. Black erosion is like climate change: what has been under way for a long time but seemed abstract is suddenly visible and real in a way it had not been before. 

Nowadays, I can see and feel that the wide-open Los Angeles that my clan moved to from Louisiana is no more. Here, where Black people once sought to make space for themselves, to put down roots and make inroads never made before in the last big American city of dreams, they are now simply trying to survive. Surviving — staying put — is not easy. Like everything else, it’s become a luxury.

The clearest evidence of erosion is how South Central, once synonymous with Black life, has gone from being chiefly Black to overwhelmingly Latino. The demographics have shifted not just in L.A. proper but in cities and regions such as Watts, Lynwood, Compton and, increasingly, Inglewood. South Central itself has gone from being 80% Black in 1970 to more than two-thirds Latino. Watts, the site of a historic Black rebellion in ’65, is now 70% Latino. 

This wouldn’t be a calamity if Black people were graduating out of these neighborhoods into more prosperous ones — the usual immigrant trajectory over generations — and while that’s happened to a degree, it has not happened nearly enough. The dramatic Latino expansion means Black people in South Central and elsewhere have lost community, and everything connected with it — political representation, schools, businesses, public places. We have grown poorer in more ways than one. This does not mean Latinos are to blame for our losses, but their steady growth has put the crisis of Black erosion in sharper and sharper relief. 

But, in some ways, the Latino growth is an existential distraction from the real, more practical crisis: lack of jobs. Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology, American studies and ethnicity at USC, says the steady disappearance of working- to middle-class jobs — the grail that drew Black people here in the first place – is what has truly destabilized Black communities and fueled Black erosion over time. The decline in these jobs began more than 50 years ago, when L.A.’s core started to deindustrialize and shed big private employers like Firestone and General Motors. The automation of well-paying jobs at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach hasn’t helped. Pastor likes to point out that at the historic Wattstax concert in 1972, Black people had the discretionary income to buy tickets and fill the 100,000-seat Coliseum to capacity — a symbol of what in retrospect were the boom times. 

People play basketball as they celebrate during a Juneteenth commemoration at Leimert Park Plaza on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The drying up of jobs coincided with the rise of gangs, the crack epidemic and disinvestment in public schools and the public sector generally — and, of course, the rise of immigration. Pastor is one of very few Latino public figures who talks frankly about how the demographic change impacted Black people, something addressed in “South Central Dreams: Finding Home and Building Community in South L.A.,” the 2021 book co-authored with Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. One of its findings is that Black and brown, especially the younger generation, share a certain pride of place as longtime cohabitants of South Central, the decades-long bane (but with gentrification, less so now) of Los Angeles. But that residential  proximity has yet to translate into meaningful political collaboration. Pastor wonders whether a Black-first agenda, revived in many places across the country, “can be separate now in a way it never really was in L.A.? That’s the tension,” he says. “And for Latinos, the question is, can their agenda really be inclusive?”

Pastor partially places the blame for Black erosion on politics, specifically on the state’s Democratic party, for taking Black voters for granted while never seriously addressing their crises. Dermot Givens, a lawyer and veteran campaign consultant, says that it’s actually worse than that. Starting around 1980, he says Democrats broke up Black voting blocs to increase its strength in then-GOP districts and turn the state reliably blue.

It worked, but Black people paid the price of representation with “coalition” politics that may have sounded equitable, but in reality undercut their power. Givens says that has to be reversed. “When you look at the South, at Alabama for instance, Black folks are saying, “We need majority Black districts to elect Black folks,’” he says. “It’s the opposite in California. There are no majority Black districts here. Even though we’ve had Black elected officials, we’re still on the back of the bus.” 

He points out that in the ’60s and ’70s — the heady days of Wattstax —  there were enough Black voters to have three Black districts. Today, none of the three Black councilmembers represent districts that are majority Black. Still, even with the erosion, Givens says there are enough Black people in L.A. to have a district, but that would require two Black representatives to consolidate. Which isn’t likely to happen, because, Givens notes dryly, “(they) want to hold on to individual power. It’s against their own personal interests.”  

Like a lot of Black people, Givens believes the sense of collectiveness and common future that defined my parents’  Southern-migration generation is gone. He’s trying to put together a new Black political organization, something to fill the void left by organizations whose influence has shrunk over the years — the African American Voter Registration and Education Project, New Frontier Club, NAACP, Brotherhood Crusade, Urban League. Givens’ effort would be small and grassroots, but, he says, that’s what’s necessary. At this point, “We have to start from the beginning.”  

Here, where Black people once sought to make space for themselves, to put down roots and make inroads never made before in the last big American city of dreams, they are now simply trying to survive.

Damien Goodmon agrees. The founder of Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which fought for equitable rail construction, and co-founder of Downtown Crenshaw Rising, the 41-year-old says that Black politics has to have a new base, that the old way of getting into office (and staying in office) is on its way out. He adds that Black people can no longer fall for the illusion of inclusion, the symbolism of  “Black faces in high places” (Obama, Mayor Bass, Tom Bradley) that is potent, even inspiring, but that almost never results in sustained improvements for Black people as a whole.

In 2020, the year of George Floyd, Downtown Crenshaw sought to enact a new way of doing things with a Black collective of activists and professionals that raised millions in an attempt to buy the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the two-block mall at the heart of Crenshaw’s commercial scene. The high-profile effort to reboot the Crenshaw economy with the community in mind ultimately failed, but DCR was working on another Black preservation project, Liberty Community Land Trust, launched around the same time and still going, to put it mildly. Liberty has been busy the last two years buying residential property in L.A. — with 10 buildings and 126 units secured or in development , Goodmon says it’s the fastest-growing land trust in American history. 

Taking property off the inflated real estate market and putting them into a land trust for community use, he says, is the only way to keep Black people here, the only way they can survive — to stay put, find space, even flourish again. But it’s a race against time. I compare it to environmentalists recently taking samples from the coral reef that are dying in the overheated waters off the Florida coast and storing them in labs, with the hope they will be able to recreate the life-giving reefs once the crisis passes. If it passes. 

These days I find hope for a Black future in an obvious but also an unlikely place: Leimert Park. Just south of the Jefferson corridor, it is, like many enclaves in the Crenshaw district, steadily gentrifying. But tiny Leimert Park Village and its main drag, Degnan Boulevard, still stand as L.A.’s Black cultural center — Africatown, as Goodmon and others call it. It stands despite the fact that it, too, has struggled against erosion. The venerable Eso Won Books shuttered last year, the small but significant park on 43rd has been gated like a prison cell, the skeletons of high-rise apartment buildings still to come loom on nearby Crenshaw Boulevard. But Africatown refuses to go away. I like to imagine that even the most soulless real estate tycoons half a world away  are finally realizing that the presence of Blackness has intrinsic value beyond any amount of profit, that a cohesive and robust Black community in the last American city of dreams is a civic good for all. The best news about our current moment is that this is not nearly as radical a thought as it used to be.

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