LA’s ‘Unapologetically Black’ Mile-Long Monument Rises in Crenshaw

Whether this beautifully engineered museum that showcases Black excellence will eventually become a monument of a community that once was but no longer is remains to be seen.

(Rendering courtesy Destination Crenshaw)

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Editor’s note: On Sep. 1, 2021, Destination Crenshaw announced the list of artists who will be creating permanent, outdoor monuments for Destination Crenshaw. Those artists are: Charles Dickson, Melvin Edwards, Maren Hassinger, Artis Lane, Alison Saar, Kehinde Wiley and Brenna Youngblood.

Monuments matter. To communities, to states, to nations. Monuments are markers of a past or present we don’t want to forget, a visual reminder to future citizens never to forget.

In March, construction started on Destination Crenshaw, a new cultural monument that will stretch for 1.3 miles along the historic Crenshaw Blvd in South Los Angeles between 48th and 60th streets. Flanking the new Crenshaw/LAX Metro rail line, the open-air museum will house a park and 100 original pieces by local artists including 3-D art installations and sculptures, 2-D murals on participating businesses and commercial properties along the corridor, and digital banner art.

The site is designed to showcase the rich cultural history and beauty of the predominantly Black community in which it resides. Destination Crenshaw president and chief operating officer Jason Foster says that the monument shows “not only our past and our history, but what our futures can be.”

For Foster, who’s worked in community development and organizing throughout his career, the site is also about equity: “What Destination Crenshaw is accomplishing is equity — visual equity for the Black community. We deserve to live in beautiful spaces that we enjoy and feel safe in.” Once completed in late 2022, the cultural museum will exhibit permanent and rotating artwork by local Black artisans plus Sankofa Park, a communal gathering spot. In total, it will add four acres of open space.

The goals of the site are many: to drive economic activity; to bring beauty in the form of visual art; to create open, green spaces to make up for the loss of 400 trees due to the Metro line construction; and to display the art and culture of the Crenshaw Corridor, which is the hub of Black life in L.A. The most critical goal of the project, however, might be this: to show Los Angelenos and visitors to the city that the Crenshaw community—most famously portrayed on film in Akeelah and the Bee and Boyz n the Hood—isn’t a neighborhood to be passed through. It’s a destination worth traveling to. It’s a community that is worthy of art, beauty, economic investment, and most importantly—honor and respect.

On the surface, Destination Crenshaw appears to deliver, with teams of all-Black designers, artists, and leaders. It boasts a beautiful, cutting-edge design from the renowned architectural firm Perkins&Will, which designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Helming the project are Black architects: Zena Howard, Gabrielle Bullock, and Drake Dillard, who designed the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science in South Los Angeles. Dr. Joy Simmons, the senior arts & exhibitions advisor, oversees all of the art that will populate the project; and the Destination Crenshaw administrative team, led by Foster, is mostly Black. Lastly, the project’s website lists several respected members of the Crenshaw community, including Gangsta Gardener Ron Finley, who support the project.

Having Black leadership is essential, says Foster. “We are building a project designed to showcase Black excellence, and a high degree of cultural competence—from our architects, construction workers, and visual artists—is crucial. When we say Destination Crenshaw is ‘unapologetically Black,’ we speak about the entire process, not just the end product.”

Lifelong Crenshaw resident Allan Caldwell, who works as a barber at The G.O.A.T. Hair Studio on Crenshaw Blvd., says he’s hopeful the site will increase commerce in the community. “The train allows small business owners to expose themselves to larger demographics of people on an international level,” he said, referring to the influx of people who will visit Destination Crenshaw on their travel to and from LAX.

Although Caldwell is hopeful the site will boost local businesses, he also says it reflects and may contribute to the gentrification the neighborhood is experiencing. According to the L.A. Times, Leimert Park, the neighborhood bordering Crenshaw, has already shifted from a population of 83% Black residents in the 1980s to 70% in 2017. To Caldwell, a monument without community ownership is meaningless. “You already have people that have lost their homes, that have moved out,” Caldwell said. “The community has changed, like the fact that you can’t say anymore with any confidence that there’s [Black] ownership.”

Like many urban development projects, Destination Crenshaw and the LAX Metro line have both experienced their share of criticism. According to a 2019 Times article, originally the LAX Metro line was scheduled to run though Crenshaw, without a stop. But after then-L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and community members protested the decision, the Crenshaw stop was added. The stop will sit at-grade (ground level), which can pose increased safety hazards for residents.

Joanne Kim, a former project lead for Destination Crenshaw and LA Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s chief of staff, told the Times that the construction decision was problematic: “It’s cheaper to build at-grade than to build underground or with elevated tracks,” she said. “Wilshire, they went underground. Hollywood Boulevard, underground. Westside, they’re going above ground or underground. It’s an insult to build at-grade.”

Foster says that although the community didn’t initiate the Metro project, the current question he wants to answer is: “How can we address this situation that has been given to us now?” Whereas some critics see Destination Crenshaw as an example of how to turn lemons into lemonade, Foster sees it as an opportunity to create something new and necessary. “It is time for us to be able to participate at the level of infrastructure to be able to really have a say in how our community is going to be in the future,” he said.

If this works, he maintained, Destination Crenshaw could “be a model for not only Crenshaw, but every other Black metropolitan area, because changes are constant.” Whether this beautifully engineered museum that showcases Black excellence will eventually become a monument of a community that once was but no longer is remains to be seen.

This story is a part of The Future of Monumentality, a series exploring the role of monuments in public space in the 21st century. This series is generously underwritten by the High Line, a nonprofit organization and public park on the West Side of Manhattan whose mission is to reimagine the role public spaces have in creating connected, healthy neighborhoods, and cities. We’ve corrected Joanne Kim’s title and properly credited former L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas for pushing for a station in Leimert Park.

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Chanté Griffin is a race, culture, and entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. In her free time, she enjoys creating comedic content about her natural hair journey for The Gram @kinky_coily_comedy and living her best Black life.

Tags: infrastructurelos angelesparksfuture of monumentality

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