The village that has developed a voice all of its own
Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, but many outsiders think of it as a factory town: a place where films and records are made before they’re exported across the globe for consumption. However, many of LA’s most vibrant cultural and creative scenes are never packaged for a mass market. In fact, certain pockets of the city are known for precisely the types of artistic expression that are by nature ephemeral –– impossible to capture and record, much less turn into a shippable product. Leimert Park is the ideal venue for those in-the-moment experiences that do not fit neatly onto postcards.
Take Project Blowed. Founded in 1994 as the spiritual successor to the Good Life Cafe, a famous open mic night in nearby South Central Los Angeles, the Blowed became a place where rappers––legends, soon-to-be legends, and aspiring amateurs––congregated every week to share what they’d been working on, hone their craft, sharpen their freestyling skills, and create an electric environment where styles clashed and evolved. The weekly night, which continues to the present day, attracts fans of all types from all across the city (and country), and counts among its famous guests the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Ice Cube, and Lenny Kravitz.
It’s no surprise that the meeting ground for the most exciting rap in LA would be in Leimert Park; the neighborhood has long been considered a mecca of sorts for black culture in the city. Founded just before the Great Depression, Leimert became an oasis for those looking to play or listen to jazz and the blues. Leimert is where Ray Charles lived when he first moved to Los Angeles––across the street from a home that is believed to have belonged to Ella Fitzgerald. That legacy is reflected today in the California Jazz & Blues Museum and the near-adjacent Performing Arts Center, both of which were founded and are still run by Barbara Morrison, a professor of Jazz Studies at UCLA and renowned vocalist in her own right. Morrison’s projects serve as a hub for those looking to understand those genres’ deep California roots, and to see the strange and exhilarating directions they’re taking in the present. That relationship to time is in fact one of the most remarkable things about Leimert: its connection to the past does not seem like revivalism or anachronism, but rather like constant renewal.
ITS CONNECTION TO THE PAST DOES NOT SEEM LIKE REVIVALISM OR ANACHRONISM, BUT RATHER LIKE CONSTANT RENEWAL.
While LA has no shortage of places to watch movies, Leimert’s Vision Theatre has evolved into something more. The iconic building, which was constructed as a “movie palace” in 1931, has been renovated to stage performing arts of all kinds—an oasis between freeways. Leimert does not feel quite like the rest of South LA, nor does it blend perfectly into Mid-City, or Inglewood, or nearby Baldwin Hills. Everything from the old LA revivalist vibe to the eccentric swaths of subcultures that converge here make it a truly singular pocket of an otherwise vast city. Although it is not one of the areas most often depicted in writing or on film, it is one of LA’s most unmistakably original spaces, far from Hollywood or the beach but no less integral to the city’s fabric. Speaking of the movie industry: there’s a reason why the late, great director John Singleton referred to Leimert as “the black Greenwich Village.”
And in an era when books are increasingly purchased after a series of blind clicks through online retailers like Amazon, Leimert throws readers back to a time when bookstores were central to intellectual communities—a place where people could talk to one another, share recommendations or experiences and discover the unexpected. There are roughly 110 black-owned bookstores in the United States; of those, Leimert’s Eso Won is one of the oldest. In addition to its unique stock of writers, the store hosts a variety of community-focused events throughout the year. The renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it his favorite place to buy books, and Barack Obama, who lived in Los Angeles County during his undergrad years, staged a reading at Eso Won before his presidency.
As for the culinary options: Leimert is famous for hosting some of California’s best Jamaican food, with Ackee Bamboo’s famous oxtail, plantains, and jerk chicken; Worldwide Tacos on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd often has hour-long lines; the fare at Delicious Southern Cuisine is as advertised; Harun Coffee is such a hot spot that it’s lured in celebrities as big as Rihanna. On sunny days, the horseshoe shape the neighborhood takes around the park plaza itself gives Leimert the feel of an open-air market, the kind of place where a community comes together for invigoration or for respite. In some parts of the city, homes and businesses are so far from one another that people remain walled off in their own little worlds; Leimert Park is an exception, pushing people out of isolation and into something interconnected.
Even pieces of the landscape that might be window dressing in other areas are, here, astonishing: murals are rendered with remarkable intricacy, fences are adorned with blocks-long patterns, geometric figures are etched into the sidewalk. Beyond the quality of each individual work are the overarching ideas that public spaces can be bettered for the public good; that art which is un-monetizable, has value to the community. It is a reminder that open space can be beautiful. It is the kind of neighborhood that has a distinct atmosphere and character derived from something other than commercial venues.
Leimert Park faces the same uncertain future that taunts every neighborhood in any major city. The whims of the real estate world, opaque development plans, and other political and market forces threaten sweeping change with little warning. But Leimert has always existed a little bit out of time, suspending art and culture as if in amber, protecting them from the decay and commodification that’s so common in the outside world. It’s impossible to export or replicate Leimert Park—which is precisely why experiencing it for yourself is so necessary.