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by John L. Mitchell, LA Times
Thursday, Jan. 02, 2003 at 11:35 AM
Sudden Rise in Rents Threatens Area's Identity
Some merchants decide to move after new landlord raises rates, but others will fight to maintain the enclave as a center of black culture.
By John L. Mitchell, Times Staff Writer
When a new landlord raised rents on a row of storefronts along a stretch of Leimert Park Village, artist Kisasi Ramsess responded by slashing prices and declaring a "move-out sale" at his studio and gallery.
Ramsess is not the only store owner talking about pulling up stakes.
The World Stage began shopping for larger digs for its jazz and poetry performances. Hairstylist Stewart Clemons of Venusian Locks is closing down after more than two decades in the same location. He received an eviction notice this month after he got behind on his rent.
"It's like something is dying," said Ramsess, whose rent went from $1,000 to $2,300 a month. "The flavor of the street will change. With these rents, the only businesses I can see opening up in here are salons and wig shops, nothing artistic."
But others plan to hold on to their roots, saying they will fight to stay, not wanting to see Leimert Park Village fade as a center of black life.
Since the 1980s, Leimert Park shop owners have tried to transform this short block of Colonial-style storefronts on Degnan Boulevard into a pedestrian-friendly enclave of African American culture. Some shop owners say that the increasing rents are a sign that the area has turned around, and that years of work to promote culture and reduce crime have made the shop owners victims of their own success.
Outside Ramsess' studio is a collection of artwork that took two decades to build: paintings, stained glass windows, etchings and posters, and cards with his black and white ink drawings of jazz musicians, blues singers and political leaders.
Russell Associates, a Sherman Oaks company, began notifying store owners of the increases in August shortly after it purchased the row of nine storefronts from the family of Jack Sidney, a Manhattan Beach landlord who tried to nurture the area's identity by keeping rents below market rates. Russell Associates declined to comment.
"Jack had another approach," recalled Ramsess, a 46-year-old artist. "He didn't just come by to collect rent; he talked to people. He'd say, 'If you can't pay your rent, do something for the building. Put some art on the walls.' " Jackie Ryan, who co-owns Zambezi Bazaar, an African craft and gift store, with her sister, rejects the notion of being victimized by an increase that sent her rent from $645 to $1,000 a month.
"Culture has supplanted the negative elements," Ryan said. "We created this space to stay, and we will wage a struggle to stay."
In recent years, the row of stores, which runs on Degnan through the center of the village between 43rd Street and 43rd Place, just east of Crenshaw Boulevard, has matured as a center for entertainment, dinning and shopping with an Afrocentric theme. Buildings have been spruced up, and the city has pumped thousands of dollars into a face lift for the park, which hosts numerous festivals including celebrations for Kwanzaa, jazz and Malcolm X's birthday. The city's Cultural Affairs Department has a detailed plan to utilize the city-owned Vision Theater to make Leimert Park Village a center for music.
Some merchants said their efforts to discuss their plans for the neighborhood have been rebuffed by the new owners.
"The new owners are not interested in anything other than receiving the rent," said Laura Hendrix, president of the Leimert Park Merchants Assn. "We wrote a letter to them to let them know they didn't just invest in a building, they invested in a community that is proud and moving forward."
Hendrix said that the merchants set up a meeting for next month with Mayor James K. Hahn in the hopes that he would intervene by bringing together the new owners and shopkeepers to discuss what can be done to preserve the area.
"We're not businesspeople," said Clint Rosemond, executive director of World Stage, a 46-seat jazz workshop/theater where rents jumped from $560 to $1,020. "Artists are always on the edge in terms of cash flow and paying bills."
The consequence of uneven cash flow was demonstrated last summer, when another landlord evicted the owner of Museum in Black for failing to pay back rent. The owner was in the midst of packing thousands of pieces in slave- and civil rights-era artifacts when a donor contributed $20,000 to save the museum.
That's one reason that many were hoping that the new owner would be as compassionate as the one they had. But even compassion can result in setbacks.
"It lulls you into a false sense of security," said Rosemond of low rents that increase suddenly to market rate.
"We became comfortable and didn't keep our eyes on the prize," he said.
And for many, the prize was just finding a way to stay in business or figuring out what the next move should be.
"It's a kind of wake-up call for us," Rosemond said. "This will shake the status quo and require us to think in ways we didn't think before."
While World Stage searches for a new location, other shop owners are less certain about what the future holds.
Phyllis Battle, a singer who performs worldwide and uses her studio to teach voice, wants to stay, but she wonders what the new owners have in store for the property.
"I wish they would tell us something," she said. "I'd like to know: Are they going to remodel the buildings or tear them down?"
Nzinga Kimbrough, who plans to stick it out with her sister at Zambezi Bazaar, said there was an important lesson.
"We have to own the land," she said. "Next, they could turn this place into a manicure shop."
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