By Roland Wiley | January 30, 2020
As we enter into the milestone era of the 2020’s, I can’t help to think about how I envisioned the year 2020 as a young architectural graduate in 1980. The year 2020 was so far away and futuristic. We had visions of flying cars, monorail trains, and telephones that actually showed the caller’s face, like on the Jetson’s cartoon show. Well here we are in 2020, and short of flying cars, information technology has advanced our future farther than I could have ever imagined. As a baby boomer, it has been difficult for me to change my habits and work process to maximize the benefits of the ever evolving developments in technology. On the other hand, I see people in their 20’s (including my 2 sons) having totally integrated their entire life into a small handheld device called a smartphone.
Notwithstanding this “digital divide” that has emerged between the Millennials and the Baby Boomers, there is tremendous opportunity for Black folks to seize this moment as an opportunity to build a cultural bridge joining the unique attributes of each generation into a powerful collective of 21st Century technological genius and 20th Century knowledge and wisdom.
No matter how different Black Baby Boomers and Black Millennials think they are, we are all still Black, and artificial intelligence has yet to take over to create a “colorblind” society. As a collective body, we share the same 400-year history of slavery and oppression. We are the only people on planet earth who know little to nothing about our culture and history before slavery. Yet the truth of the matter is we have a rich history and culture dating to the beginning of civilization. Where can we go to in our community to discuss and discover our truths?
As an architect, I look at the state of our communities through the lens of our built environment, and what I see is an unprecedented opportunity to transform the built environment of Black Los Angeles into a thriving, sustainable community based upon the principles of self-determination and community empowerment. At this very moment, we are at the unique intersection of Black Millennials who are rising to leadership roles alongside Black Baby Boomers who have held leadership roles for several decades and are now looking to pass this wisdom and knowledge on to the next generation. We now have the opportunity to create partnerships and legacies of Black achievement by building our own communities using the wealth of resources that we have so richly shared with America since we first landed here on slave ships in 1619.
When I look at our Black communities, I am simply in awe of what we have contributed to American culture literally since we got here. We were legally enslaved, traumatized, and afflicted for 400 years, yet our creative genius and resilient spirit is interwoven into the very core of the American experience. We are the creators of the Negro Spiritual, Gospel Music, the Pentecostal Church Movement, Soul Music, The Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, and the Hip Hop culture., just to mention a few. It is important that the Millennials and those generations after them do not forget where they come from and the incredible sacrifices and contributions made by our ancestors to get us where we are today.
And where are our communities today and how did we get here? Well, that is a topic for many books and documentaries. However, if you look through my architectural lens, you would say: “our communities are not much different than they were 40 years ago”. Our Black neighborhoods continue to be unsustainable communities, featuring little to no job centers, few major retail centers, under performing public schools, a poor transportation infrastructure, and a lack of major cultural or entertainment venues. Isn’t it ironic that we are the creators of so much music and culture, yet there are so few quality venues in our own communities to display our tremendous talents? Our inner city neighborhoods continue to be defined by the proliferation of liquor stores, check cashing outlets, junk food drive- throughs, and now cannabis shops. Today, all across the nation, the middle and upper class demographics of the suburbs (white people) are discovering the inherent lifestyle benefits of urban living and displacing these inner city residents (black and brown people) by driving up the real estate and rental prices. Urban communities from San Francisco, CA to Brooklyn, NY are rapidly changing demographics, and in the process either erasing or appropriating decades of Black culture that preceded them. Harlem NY and U Street in Washington, DC are prime examples of this alarming trend.
My community, View Park, Baldwin Hills, and Leimert Park, represents one of the last intact Black communities in the entire country. Residents of these prestigious neighborhoods enjoy the highest per capita income of any Black community in America. Well-heeled Black professionals, entertainers, and athletes make up the majority occupants of these custom designed homes featuring spectacular views and manicured lawns. However, without a serious intervention of collective planning and strategy execution, my community with its rich history of over 50 years as a majority black neighborhood, is a prime candidate for the same displacement and loss of cultural identity.
Art and Architecture serve as great intervention tools to mitigate the loss of the historic cultural identity of a community when the demographics change. Both of these elements represent a visual tool to herald the history and accomplishments of past inhabitants. For the Crenshaw Corridor, which is the major commercial artery of these three Black neighborhoods, City leadership has taken a strategic step with the implementation of the #Destination Crenshaw project. This innovative concept is in essence a lineal Art Museum featuring “Unapologetically Black” art installations along a strip of Crenshaw Boulevard, ending at Leimert Park. These art interventions will feature artwork by local and international artist celebrating the achievements of Black Los Angeles’ cultural icons. This art project will tell our story in a way that is permanent, profound, and compelling.
Telling our story offers a great opportunity for the Millennials and the Baby Boomers to work together and create some powerful statements. Storytelling was the main medium our ancestors used to pass on our history. The recent completion of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History serves as beacon of hope that we will take action to build more architectural monuments to our Black culture across the country in our communities, just like all other cultures have already achieved.
Leimert Park, the cultural capital of Black Los Angeles, provides a tremendous opportunity to serve as both an example of self-determination for inner cities around the country and cultural anchor in a community undergoing major demographic changes. As mentioned earlier, Black folks have given so much to American culture, yet there are so few venues in our community that can benefit from our massive contributions. If you want to purchase some cutting edge hip hop gear, you have to drive to the shops on LaBrea, if you want to hear some good hip hop or jazz, you have to drive to Hollywood or elsewhere; if you want have a conference with first class conference accommodations, you will be hard pressed to find the right venue in our community. Our culture has been appropriated and distributed to all parts of Los Angeles and the world.
Leimert Park Village is a perfect place to build an African American Cultural and Conference Center for us to tell our story and teach each other about our history and our future. Leimert Park Village stands at the epicenter of a series of monumental improvements:
The idea of a Cultural Conference Center in Leimert Park is not new. The community has requested a Cultural Center since the development of the Leimert Park Master Plan in 2007. The need for a place to learn about our history and share stories about past and current events has existed in our communities since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. As the upwardly mobile Blacks integrated out of our neighborhoods, our cultural community centers became de-centralized, leaving a massive divide between the middle class Blacks and the poor Blacks.
We are now at a time that we must come together and work together, pooling our resources, talent, and wisdom together to build communities for us and by us. One thing is for sure: the powers that be will not build an African American Cultural Conference Center for us. Leimert Park is this precious place about to come into its own. It needs our guidance, and the powers that be are observing to see if its current caretakers (the Black Community) are properly sustaining the new resources about to be completed in this wonderful village.
This venture will require the wisdom experience of the Baby Boomers. More importantly, it will require the creative genius of our young people utilizing the latest innovations in information technology and artificial intelligence. We need a social media campaign to promote this idea and raise public awareness. We need input from our young people relative to what they envision our future to be. The African American Cultural Conference Center needs all hands on deck to be successful. Our affluent Blacks who seem to be complacent in their beautiful homes in the hills must decide to invest and participate in our community. Our young people must be willing to look past some of us old folks stuck in our ways and work with us to achieve this important goal.
If we choose to work together, the Leimert Park Cultural Conference Center will a shining example of telling our story in a way that generates new ideas and sustains a culture of trusting and supporting one another. If you are interested in being a part of this movement, please join us.