Leimert Park's World Stage fights eviction

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 The World Stage has become the cornerstone for Leimert Park, one of the last standing African American cultural communities in the country, and it might be forced to close its doors.

Founded in 1989, the World Stage's jam sessions, jazz performances, youth groups and writing workshop have been a model for countless other nonprofit literary arts groups around Southern California and the nation, according to KCET. It has also churned out some of the nation's most famous jazz musicians and poets over its 25 years. Now World Stage supporters are fighting against government officials, developers and new investors who have been snapping up buildings to bring in new shoppers and residents.

Last May, Leimert Park found out that their two-year fight for a metro stop on the incoming Crenshaw/LAX line would become a reality. 

But shortly after, the World Stage's owners and their neighbors learned that the building had been sold and eviction notices were handed out to the stage and many other businesses.

Artistic Director Conney Williams says the World Stage has become the "heart beat of the community" and offers unique services different than any other cultural center.

"It has become a place where if someone was hurting or someone doesnt' have insurance and they need a fundraiser done those things are done at the World Stage," Williams said. "In my 18 years here we have had over 50 memorial services and fundraisers for people who needed help or couldn't take care of themselves."

New metro rail stops have resulted in gentrification of many pockets across Los Angeles. When the Vernon stop opened on the blue line in 1990, the rent burden for residents in the area rose 18 percent as more middle-class families flocked to the developing neighborhood.

South Los Angeles has been tackling the same issue. After surveying the area, the City Redevelopment Agency said construction of new housing above the existing afro-centric Leimeirt Park shops, possible upscale condos and national chain stores could revive the area.

“we weren’t doing this so that the cultural fabric, uniqueness of Leimert park would be replaced. We were doing this to accent our existing cultural landmarks," said Damien Goodman, chair of executive director of Crenshaw subway coalition.

Merchants countered the suggestion by drafting their own proposal that includes an African-American museum and library, mom-and-pop restaurants and a few national chains, but no condos. They also have been pushing to make the area a “historical preservation zone,” which would limit construction.

Councilman Bernard Parks, who used to represent Leimert Park before redistricting, said residents need to "invest in the area by owning their own businesses."

He also agrees the area should be a cultural landmark.

After growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Georgia, Williams said he had never seen a cultured, educated, black community like Leimert Park before he came to Los Angeles.

"The segregated community I grew up was not a place you could have pride in," said Williams. "What happens in Leimer Park and the Worls Stage is unique because people want to contribute to the place and respect that area."

Williams said the World Stage has trained and enhanced the skills of literally thousands of individuals. And while the area needs more traffic and "could stand some sprucing up," its afro-centric character should not be changed.

But it might be too late. 

A new, faceless landlord has caused a lot of uncertainty, not just for the future of the performance center,  but the identity of the neighborhood as a whole.

Stores and other cultural meeting spots, like Fifth Street Dicks and Babe & Ricky's Inn, have shuttered and many business owners are anxiously waiting to hear if their leases will be renewed.

“We are dead. We get maybe two customers a day and that is not enough to live on, to pay rent with,” said Mary Enzinga Kimbro, one of the owners of
Zambezzi Bazar.

Kimbro pays $1,600 a month and says she expects that price to go up with the new ownership.

Laura Hendrix has owned an art store called Gallery Plus in Leimert Park for 23 years and says cultural hubs like the World Stage are disappearing rapidly because they do not have the right kind of protection.

“We are on edge because we don’t know what is going to happen to us and our cultura icons we worked so hard to build up,” said Hendrix.

World Stage supporters argue that the Stage's impending eviction would be a "colossal devastation" to the neighborhood and is a crucial crux of its identity. 

"Cultural institutions are how we perpetuate our culture, our music our art our educational imperatives," said Torrey Brandon, who has lived in the area for years. "No one is going to china town and telling them to close their institutions and get out, no one is going to little Phillipines and telling them to get out."

If forced, Williams says The World Stage will continue if evicted. It will find another building, perhaps in a neighborhood. But that would mean the end of an era for Leimert Park.

The future of the Stage, and the neighborhood, is still unfolding as more politicians and activists are pouring their opinions and resources into the cause. The investors, however, remain mum and still unknown. 

"The world stage is all of Leimert Park," said Williams. "And we will disappear without our art, music, poetry and dance. It's who we are."