Hal Miller was a criminal lawyer who died recently. He and my father have been friends since their teens. I knew him but never spoke with him in-depth until sometime in the mid-90s when I was doing a story for the L.A. Times. It was a story about Eastside Boys, a group of black men born prior to 1940. My father and Hal were both members, but the latter was the group’s unofficial leader, expert, and historian. His house was like a permanent venue for reunions for years. But the yearly occasion wasn’t just a gathering; it was a homage to black life in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century, which, when looking back, were its best years.
To grasp the magnitude of the gentrification taking over black neighborhoods in metropolitan L.A., it’s necessary to know what Eastside meant to black people. Of course, not everything was ideal; racist tradition forced blacks to reside in different neighborhoods on Eastside. The areas on Eastside were west of Alameda Street and east of Main Street and are currently called South Central. But despite the circumstances, the Eastside Boys, including Hal and my father, celebrated the gigantic possibility that L.A. appeared to provide what they could see from a small view of their surroundings. They celebrated it not only at reunions but every day of their lives.
The city was modern, with a sense of horizontalness, mixed economy, and inexpensive homes. It looked like a place accessible to everyone, irrespective of color, class, or status, unlike New York or New Orleans. The climate also encouraged people to keep that belief because it’s moderate, and anyone from any climatic region can adjust quickly. The success of the Eastside community in the mid-twentieth century also increased hope for a wonderful life that seemed to take form for future generations despite the segregation.
It did happen; hope turned to reality in one way after the 50s and 60s civil rights movement, but it came with a cost. When restrictions on racial housing disappeared, the white community left the area en masse leaving blacks in segregation once again. But prosperity continued, especially in the middle-class communities of Baldwin Hills, View Park, Leimert Park, and Crenshaw. These areas were off-limits to black people before.
As white people left the areas, it was Inglewood from where they left last and in large numbers. It was a different city for two reasons; first, it opposed integration historically, and second, its location was to the extreme west if you consider Eastside. Though many white people left, there was still a significant number of households residing even in the 1970s. Many blacks arrived and made the place their home, but the good life didn’t last long. Proposition 13, which limited the funding of various services, including public schools, had a disastrous effect. It later led to the onset of an epidemic in the form of crack cocaine which multiplying street gangs oversaw. The wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America also changed the racial makeup of South Central and Inglewood.
As if all these weren’t enough, the rising cost of housing, sometimes called “the destabilizing force of the 21st century,” poses a threat and may take away any hope of a good life for the black community of L.A. The one factor, “affordability,” which made Eastside thrive, is no more prevalent. Los Angeles is sharply vertical now, and only the wealthy and elites can afford housing. Besides, race and class are also intertwined, so anything expensive isn’t accessible to blacks as a group. The trend that the Eastside generation and Hal started is reversed now as the famed Los Angeles’s “good life” is scarcely accessible to blacks. The success which the Eastside Boys saw and hoped for it to continue is stalled or closed in most sectors. Various aspects are pushing out the black community from blocks and neighborhoods.
Return of White Community
This was an expected crisis so nothing to be surprised about.
As per a study conducted by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the increase in housing costs and the decrease in wages are the two main factors for the decline of South L.A. The price of houses is more than three times what it used to cost in the 60s. The scarcity of jobs, high cost of living, and rising prices of homes are some reasons for the gentrification taking over Crenshaw and starting to envelop Inglewood. The latter has become a much sought-after area in L.A. The real estate business has boomed in recent years, with housing costs soaring at least 63%, according to a study by Property Shark. The research also indicated that the catalog of two-bath and two-bedroom homes gave a feeling of “sub-urbanity.”
Gentrification wasn’t an event that Hal and my father imagined when they were growing up in blossoming L.A. It is one thing about white people fleeing and entirely another thing about them returning. The phenomenon has, of course, been reshaping black neighborhoods historically – Bed-Stuy, Harlem, to name a few – but never has it happened to such a vast extent as now. It’s a fact to be worried about because the black population of L.A. has gone down to less than ten percent of the total population and poses a danger of being pushed out entirely.
The New Inglewood
The danger is more pronounced in Inglewood, where I grew up and reside today. It isn’t an ordinary black neighborhood in L.A. under threat. It’s a city with a 50% black population. But several things, such as gentrification and impending economic and racial change, look very realistic for a place that has its separate culture, public image, school district, and government.
Many people, including my neighbors, say that even though gentrification has negative aspects, it’s the answer to reviving our image, which has been tainted for a long time. It’s also the perfect timing for a revitalization. There is plenty of development going on as the city is the location of a huge NFL stadium that will house two teams, the Chargers, and the Rams. The surroundings consist of condos, various facilities, retail, and amenities. In a way, it looks like the phoenix rising from its ashes and appears to hold a promise to improve Inglewood and make it better. James Butts, the mayor, said that Inglewood is one city that has undergone a vast transformation in only 4 years from being a crime-ridden, lack of jobs, and poverty-stricken city to something worthy and affluent.
However, there is one probable reality lurking around once the development completes. The designs of gentrification in every area seem to oppose the idea of blacks and Latinos of Inglewood staying around to benefit from the revived city. If nothing is done, then the history of the black community, which thrived even under dire circumstances, could be wiped out.
But there is hope because something positive is happening, and one of the first steps towards that has been regarding the MTA rail line, which is under construction. Crenshaw Subway Coalition, a transportation justice organization founded by Damien Goodman, fought, and now the rail line is accountable to the communities of Crenshaw’s and Inglewood’s requirements. The organization has been working to oppose gentrification in both areas.
According to the coalition founder, every aspect is being transformed into something white people can accept and like. If it continues, then the people (blacks) who built the place and lived there for decades will be pushed out eventually. To prevent this catastrophe, the coalition plans to form a non-profit community land trust.
More Hurdles Ahead
But it isn’t going to be easy because black neighborhoods may have missed the opportunity. The leaders and politicians are at fault here because they depended heavily on government funding, but it hasn’t helped. Instead of leaning on unreliable financing of the authorities, leaders could have intensely tried to acquire private development funding. It would have enhanced standards of living and created stable jobs. Another reason for the missed opportunity is that black people often aim low in life just to survive and not to flourish.
If the community were forward-thinking and tried aiming higher, it might have been a different scenario. The 1990s were when black neighborhoods could have done something and transformed the city. But that’s long gone, according to Michael Anderson, a developer, and an architect.
Now, it seems that only gentrification or the return of whites can make things happen, such as safe streets, good schools, and ideal retailers. What black communities wanted and needed is slowly happening, but it’s coming at a significant cost.
My uncle was one of the few people who obtained the Los Angeles dream. He bought a house in the 50s near Slauson Avenue, considered the demarcation line between white and black. His home was in the south of Slauson, and so he had a cross being burned on his property, but he stuck there.
Gentrification has many positive aspects too. However, it doesn’t do much for black people because it involves them leaving and not arriving. There isn’t any neighborhood in L.A to go to.