Bringing Leimert Park back

"This center is going to be a launching pad for new artists," said Barbara Morrison of her nonprofit venue, set to open next month. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times / January 8, 2000)

Once a vibrant hub for African American culture, the community is hoping the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center will help rejuvenate the neighborhood.

Jazz and blues singer Barbara Morrison recalled the heyday of Leimert Park Village, a 1-square-mile center of African American art and culture south of downtown that locals like to say is "as close to Harlem as you're going to get in Los Angeles."

That was back in the 1970s, when the Crenshaw district community's shady streets were lined with trendsetting nightclubs, art galleries and restaurants. "There was a creative vibe in the air that I've only felt in a few other places in the world," Morrison said.

The village isn't what it used to be. On a recent weekday, the storefronts looked a little run-down and things were so quiet that it was hard to miss the commotion at the new nonprofit Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center at West 43rd Street and Degnan Boulevard.

In preparation for its grand opening next month, musicians were tuning instruments. Technicians were installing computer stations. Crews were hanging stage curtains and decorating the walls with framed portraits of jazz legends. And Morrison was looking pleased.

"This center is going to be a launching pad for new artists," she said.

Local business leaders point to the center as one of several new developments that could help put the village back on the map as an arts and events destination.

Arts patron Eileen Norton opened an art gallery a few doors down from Morrison's center two weeks ago. Around the corner on Crenshaw Boulevard, extensive renovations were being completed at Maverick's Flat restaurant and nightclub, named a Los Angeles historic cultural monument in recognition of the role it played in the city's pioneering black music scene.

The low-rise business district rich with Art Deco buildings, Spanish colonial homes and post- World War II bungalows hosts an annual book festival and is the last stop on the Martin Luther King Day Parade. The local businesses recently agreed to contribute to a special assessment for streetlights, surveillance cameras, tree trimming and street cleaning services.

"Lots of hard work is starting to pay off in ways which will, in the long term, broaden our economic base," said Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build, a community development corporation under contract with the city of Los Angeles to manage the area's business improvement district. "The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau designated the village as a recommended destination.

"Our vision: a robust intersection of commerce and African American art and culture," Shockley said, "for the community and the city to build on."

Developed in the late 1920s, Leimert Park Village was initially restricted to whites and known for its golf courses and several airstrips. Howard Hughes learned to fly there.

The area began attracting African American musicians, writers and artists in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots. The civil unrest of 1992, however, triggered an exodus of customers from the village, which made it more vulnerable to the economic downturn.

A boom cannot happen soon enough for Obinne Onyeador, who recently hung a "Big Sale — everything must go" sign over the entrance to his African art gallery.

"I'm closing the place down," Onyeador said with a frown. "A few years ago, I was selling $5,000 worth of art a month to people who wanted to make their homes look nicer. Now, many of those same people are unemployed and losing their homes, and I can't make the rent anymore."

If the community has had anything like a blockbuster in recent years, it would have to be the reopening Tuesday of Maverick's Flat.

In a rethinking of the club's funky 1970s ambience, developer Curtis Fralen mirrored the ceilings and put up vintage posters of entertainers who got their start there, including the Fifth Dimension; Earth, Wind and Fire; the Commodores; and Parliament. He also expanded the square footage, added a patio and installed a stainless steel kitchen to lift the quality of its dining experience and attract new customers.

"We're going to reopen for dinner on Dec. 22, and for entertainment in February," Fralen said. "People around here are not going to have to drive to Beverly Hills for a good steak and fine wine anymore."