Destination Crenshaw art project aims to reclaim the neighborhood for black L.A.

On a crisp late fall day, hundreds of South L.A. community leaders, activists and longtime residents convened on the top level of a parking structure adjoining the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza shopping center. What lured them there: a private preview of Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile open-air museumthat planners said will offset the effects of gentrification and revitalize the vibrant heart of black Los Angeles.

As the sound of an R&B band floated through the air, the crowd separated into groups and entered small tents where Destination Crenshaw leaders outlined specific facets of the project. In one tent, Perkins+Will architects showed renderings of the design. In another, artist, gardener and activist Ron Finley described how Crenshaw Boulevard would be transformed by art, the open-air museum anchored by two large monuments and featuring more than 100 rotating and permanent art installations on sidewalks, business facades and public structures tackling themes like community resiliency and Afro-futurism in South L.A.

“What we’re doing here is gangsta as hell,” Finley said to a rapt audience.

Studio-MLA landscape architect Anton Smith spoke about plans to add more than 800 trees back into the community. And before describing the themes guiding Destination Crenshaw, including togetherness, improvisation and dreams, lead historian Larry Earl promised that the project would put an end to cultural erasure in the community.

Spearheaded by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the project will stretch along Crenshaw Boulevard between 48th and 60th streets, flanking the new Crenshaw/LAX Metro rail line. Construction is slated to begin this year and finish by spring 2020.

Although the art project may be unfamiliar to many in the city, that may soon change given the notable black Angelenos who have gotten involved. Destination Crenshaw is led by a team of artists, academics and community planners including California African American Museum deputy director and chief curator Naima Keith, rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt, and James Burks, director of special projects for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Taking cues from African American art and culture destinations across the country including Harlem and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it seeks to highlight and celebrate the legacy of black contributions in the city and across the nation.

And whereas art gentrification in places like Boyle Heights has taken the form of private (and some might say elitist) galleries, the art of Destination Crenshaw is meant to be free and public, as much a reflection of the community’s past as its future.

It’s a direct response to what some felt was the city’s historical neglect of the neighborhood — and construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line, an 8.5-mile light rail route that’s part of an ambitious project to connect LAX with L.A. County’s mass transit system. After initial plans were unveiled in 2008, critics were upset that the line did not include a station in the core of the community.

Instead of constructing the rail line underground orelevated above street traffic, the segment from 48th to 60th streets will run at street-level, a design that has been linked to increased accidents and fatalities. Construction also would wipe out some 400 trees in the area, Smith said.

It’s cheaper to build at-grade than to build underground or with elevated tracks, said Joanne Kim, Destination Crewshaw project lead and senior adviser to Harris-Dawson. “Wilshire, they went underground. Hollywood Boulevard, underground. Westside, they’re going above ground or underground. It's an insult to build at-grade.”

In 2013, activists celebrated the approval of a station in Leimert Park, a hub of African American business and culture, after years of fighting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But the Metro line also dredged up deep concerns about gentrification.

Los Angeles’ African American population has been declining for two decades. In Leimert Park, black people make up 70% of the population, down from 83% in the 1980s. As gentrification has approached, some residents were concerned that the train would drive up housing prices and catalyze a push-out. The arrival of the light-rail line coincides with development in the area, including a $500-million renovation of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza that will include new retail space and housing, most at market rate.

“The community demanded that we have a response to the investment of Metro and the train,” Harris-Dawson said. “We really wanted to look at how do we use the opportunity that the rail presents to solidify, to restore the historic African American community in Southern California, and doing it in a way that benefits the people who already live there.” And, the councilman said, “provide a window into who we are for the people using the rail.”

In fall 2016, Harris-Dawson assembled black L.A. leaders to ensure they had a voice in the creative direction of Destination Crewshaw. Project organizers were particularly inspired by what Kim called the African American art and culture renaissance in L.A. — local artists like Mark Bradford, Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar, Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.

For a model they looked to Harlem, the New York neighborhood known as an African American cultural hub since the 1920s. They also looked locally at communities including Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, those with a strong sense of cultural identity. They began to see the opportunity of a street-level train — more eyes on South L.A.

Destination Crenshaw “will be a celebration for the community and a source of pride. It will also have the eyes of people from all over the world, literally, as this is the train that comes from LAX,” Kim said. “The station is at the gateway to the city of L.A. We believe that it’s important that the gateway starts at the black community.”

Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that worked on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Detroit’s Motown Museum, signed on in 2017 to lead the design and construction.

“What was clear was being able to tell a very large story about this community being there for so long and also the contribution of all the major players and heroes that have come out of that community,” lead architect Zena Howard said. “We began thinking about how you could tell the story not in a chronological way, not like a history museum, not in a didactic way, but more in an experiential way.”

Destination Crenshaw renderings showed a revamp of the historic Crenshaw Wall, also called “Our Mighty Contribution,” a mural depicting African American icons — and recently defaced with swastikas. They also revealed plans for a community amphitheater with an overlook, plus more than 10 pocket parks and parklets, adding 4 acres of parkland to the area.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.