The solidarity economy is looking for a statement win. A headline-grabbing, underdog victory in prime time against a big, blue-blooded competitor. The Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza mall in Los Angeles could be that statement win.
The Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza mall is 41 acres of prime commercial real estate in the nation’s second largest metropolitan area. When the mall came up for sale last year, a group of residents decided to shoot for the moon and started organizing to buy it, at a price tag now in the nine figures.
If their bid is successful, the residents envision bringing in more locally owned businesses — with a preference for worker-owned cooperatives; adding new mixed-income housing; building a recording studio; and creating new green space on the lot.
They formed a nonprofit entity to take ownership of the mall, called Downtown Crenshaw. Over the past year they successfully rebuffed two bids from outside investors, and at a March 24 press event they went public with the $28 million in donations they’ve raised for a down payment on the property.
Remarkably for a philanthropic effort, they’ve already got the $28 million in the bank, held in trust, ready to wire over at a moment’s notice. But now they’re saying the brokers for the property have stopped responding to them and have instead accepted another bid at a lower price. Downtown Crenshaw says they have enough investor interest to match any legitimate price offered for the property.
At the March 24 press event, Black civil rights and business organizations also released a letter calling on the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, to open a congressional inquiry into whether the brokerage firm for the property is violating federal laws that are supposed to protect against racial discrimination in real estate. The brokerage firm is DWS, a global financial services firm affiliated with Deutsche Bank. DWS did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
“We want our 40 acres,” said Veronica Sance, a lifelong Crenshaw resident, at the March 24 press event. “We’re not asking them to give us this mall, we have raised the money to buy this mall. Speculators are buying up everything in the community already they can get their hands on…but we’re going to stop it here. Our money is green. It’s not Black like us. Our money is green.”
The solidarity economy —an umbrella term that loosely refers to worker-owned cooperatives and other cooperative businesses, community land trusts and other alternative ownership models for businesses, land or other productive assets, typically characterized by some type of community-rooted or democratic control and management — is at the core of the residents’ plan for the mall — the very vision they’ve used to raise $28 million in donations so far, and are now pitching to investors to raise the rest of the capital for the acquisition and for building new housing, a 6-acre park, a recording studio and more additions to the property. The mall currently still has some mom-and-pop businesses and anchor tenants including a movie theater and a grocery store, and they’re hoping to fill existing vacant spaces with worker-owned cooperative businesses.
The Crenshaw Mall today (Photo courtesy Downtown Crenshaw)
And the solidarity economy vision extends far beyond the 41 acres of the mall — at the same time all of this has been happening, the same group of residents have also started acquiring the first of what they expect to be thousands of residential properties and units in the neighborhoods surrounding the mall to place into the new Liberty Community Land Trust, separate from Downtown Crenshaw but with some of the same board members, which will provide permanent protection against market-driven displacement from residential properties.
In some ways it sounds radical. But to many of the residents and organizers behind the effort, it is just the most logical culmination of generations building toward economic self-determination for the historically Black Crenshaw community.
“It’s not a two minute pitch, it’s a conversation, a story about our community, the resiliency, the work some of the leaders have been doing in some cases for decades,” says Damien Goodmon, a founding board member of Downtown Crenshaw. “It starts with the people of Crenshaw and how we’ve been working on the cause for economic self-determination, especially since the 1992 [Rodney King] uprising and before, back in the period of divestment, people talking about the solidarity economy and building or having community ownership as the method of revitalization.”
Goodmon himself is a descendant of the Blodgett brothers — Crenshaw community leaders who founded Liberty Savings & Loan Association in 1924, the first Black bank in Los Angeles. Another organizer, Jackie Ryan, has a grandfather who founded Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, at one time among the most successful Black life insurance companies in the country. Ryan’s grandfather and the Blodgett brothers built the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, a historic structure just a few miles from the mall.
Shared community ownership is key to Downtown Crenshaw’s vision for economic self-determination — this isn’t about Black celebrities coming back to buy the block, but Goodmon says they would be welcome to donate to entities like Downtown Crenshaw or Liberty Community Land Trust to support the acquisition and redevelopment of property in the name of the community.
“This is about more than just Black people owning the mall, because if that’s the case we’ll lose to Jay-Z every time,” Goodmon says. “This is not about them owning, this is about them cutting a check to the community so the community can own.”
What’s newer here are the people and organizations cutting those checks, sparked by conversations such those around Black Lives Matter over the past few years, culminating last summer during the uprisings sparked by the police killings of unarmed Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.
Downtown Crenshaw says they’ve rallied over 150 donors, foundations and investors so far, including the Kataly Foundation, Regan Pritzker and other members of the Pritzker family, several members of the Disney family, Beneficial State Bank founder Kat Taylor, and Resource Generation LA — the local chapter of a national network that describes itself as “a multiracial membership community of young people (18-35) with wealth and/or class privilege committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.”
The donors and investors share the same concerns as the residents behind Downtown Crenshaw and Liberty Community Land Trust. Real estate pressures in and around Crenshaw are threatening to uproot a community that made a home out of this neighborhood starting in the days of the Great Migration, when they fled the Jim Crow south and landed in neighborhoods like this one.
To help find those donors and investors, Downtown Crenshaw enlisted Ed Whitfield, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the Southern Reparations Loan Fund and the Seed Commons investment network for worker-owned cooperatives.
“We all know gentrification is just another word for domestic colonization,” Whitfield said at a March 21 virtual meeting of Downtown Crenshaw. “But we’re not the only ones who know that. What is heartening to know is that there is a network of other people, including people with wealth, around the country, who also recognize that problem. They recognize the problem that their wealth indicates…some people are actually recognizing that the way their families got to have their money is sometimes problematic and it generates the responsibility to try to do something different.”
On the real estate development side, Downtown Crenshaw has brought in local Black architect Atelier Cory Henry alongside SmithGroup (which was part of the team behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture) and Mass Design Group (which worked on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama).
Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate services firm, has agreed to serve as master developer and property manager, raising the capital to build out the rest of the group’s vision and manage the property on an ongoing basis. The real estate services firm would be doing its work on a fee-for-service basis without taking any ownership stake in the property. Two local Black financial services firms have also signed on to help raise the capital for various phases of the project over the next several years.
“People over the last several years been talking about investors contributing to communities, but never a project on this scale,” said Whitfield. “Until now there was never a project of this scale that had the potential for being this inspirational, for so many people to be moved by this, for so many people to learn from this, for the very concept of community ownership of these community spaces for the benefit of community rather than the purpose of making a lot of money.”
Editor’s note: We’ve corrected the location of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.)
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.