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Iconic Crenshaw Project Celebrates LA's Black History

Soon, along a 1.3-mile stretch on Crenshaw Boulevard, there will be an area dedicated to LA's 200-year black history.

When visitors to the Los Angeles International Airport hop on the Metro Exposition Line at Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards, they will see murals of LA's first black mayor, Tom Bradley; artwork of Don Cornelius, the host of Soul Train, the hippest train in America; and illustrations of Biddy Mason, a former slave born in the South who was taken to California by her owner and, once freed, became a prominent landowner in Los Angeles.

Rendering of Perkins and Will's project Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles

Called Destination Crenshaw, this outdoor museum project and cultural experience is currently in the permitting stages and aims to help visitors learn about the contributions of past black residents, Perkins and Will Project Manager for Destination Crenshaw Drake Dillard said. Perkins and Will is serving as the project architects, in partnership with local partners.

“People don’t know these stories, black or white,” Dillard said. “So the goal of this museum experience is to expose and educate visitors about the rich history of LA, and how blacks impacted that history.”

Dillard added that, perhaps more importantly, the new experience will help drive economic development to an area that historically has been devoid of investment.

Crenshaw Boulevard itself is a 23-mile artery from Wilshire Boulevard near Hancock Park to Palos Verdes. But the two or so mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard, dubbed the Crenshaw District, is in South Los Angeles, and has long functioned as the Main Street of black Los Angeles.

Historically, prominent black entertainers like Nat King Cole performed at clubs in the area. During weekends, car clubs of low riders would meet and cruise the area. Rappers Skee-Lo, Ice Cube and other icons created music videos that were shot and produced locally.

But for decades, the area has been devoid of commercial investment. While other pockets of Los Angeles saw a surge of investment activity and revitalization during the 1990s, South Los Angeles missed out on the renaissance that came to the Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles, Venice and the Westside.

“In the history of America, there has always been a misallocation of funds and care when it comes to the African American community,” Dillard said.

Dillard has lived in the area since the mid-1980s.

“This area was not always African American. If you go back in history, it was a Jewish community, it was an Asian community at one time," he said.

"There was a lot of activity and care given to and around this area. But when it became a minority community, [for] African Americans and Latinos, the [outside] attention and care to these communities was not focused on," Dillard said. "And that’s what happens across the country, not just in California.”

Rendering of Perkins and Will's project Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles

In a 2018 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Wave, guest columnists Karim Webb, a local business owner, and John Harriel, an executive board member at IBEW Local 11 and a facilitator at nonprofit 2nd Call, wrote about the massive wealth gap the neighborhood experiences.

"While the number of wealthy Angelenos increases, we also have record high poverty and homelessness throughout our city — particularly among communities of color," they wrote.

"This disparity is reflected in the lack of investment we still see in our communities in South Los Angeles, which has a higher percentage of poverty and unemployment than most other parts of the city ... We have watched with frustration as other parts of the city rebuild and flourish, while our community remains an afterthought."

But things are changing. 

With the Metro wrapping up its 8.3-mile Crenshaw/ LAX transit project in the next year or so, there has been a rush of investment capital into the area.

In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council approved Capri Capital's $700M redevelopment plans for Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a major mall in the Crenshaw area. Capri Capital is owned by a prominent black developer, Quintin E. Primo, who told Bisnow at the time that the 3M SF mixed-use redevelopment would "create jobs and economic development in the area so desperately needed.”

More than a dozen other mixed-use residential and retail projects are slated for the area, Curbed LA reports. Even rapper Nipsey Hussle, before he was killed in 2019, was developing a retail strip mall in the Crenshaw District. It was part of his efforts "to buy back the hood," according to KCRW.

Hussle was also one of the main backers of Destination Crenshaw, according to reports.

Los Angeles city officials along with the Perkins and Will team celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony of Destination Crenshaw.

“He was one of the people to assert that Crenshaw ought to be a destination unto itself, given the cultural dynamism and creativity that came out of that community,” Council member Marqueece Harris Dawson told the news outlet. Harris Dawson is championing the project.

Destination Crenshaw will complement the surrounding economic commercial activity, Dillard said. The $100M project will include the creation of several pocket parks, community gathering spaces, landscape and streetscape improvements, and more than 100 public art opportunities, Los Angeles city officials said.

The project broke ground in February, and Dillard said the project should open sometime in 2021.

"This is another community that wants to expose their culture to the world and be celebrated," Dillard said. "It's a good, positive thing for young people to understand and know this. Not just blacks or whites, but everybody, and the world in general."