Murals are a common feature of many of Leimert Park's alleyways.
Hollywood High School

Amid change, Leimert Park arts community leaders remain optimistic

Phajah Dawn Lett remembers a time when she could hear music echoing from Leimert Park every night. The beats in the park were loud enough to draw her attention as an 8-year-old girl. By the time she was 12, Lett convinced her mother to enroll her in West African classes at the Dance Collective, a free community program.

She attended the classes on and off into her 20s. When Lett had her son, Kevin, she carried him with her in a handbasket, set on exposing him to the arts before he could even walk. When he was a toddler she took him to djembe drum circles in the park, spurring his love for drumming.

“It’s the things we did as a family; we were around cultural people,” Lett said. “We all would converge here, in Leimert Park.”

The Leimert Park Lett grew up in as a child was a center of black art, where John Singleton filmed movies and celebrities frequented Maverick’s Flat. Locals say that over the last few decades, Leimert Park has lost much of that celebrity appeal, and some fear that the arts community might be even more diluted come 2018, when the Metro Crenshaw/LAX line running through Leimert Park is completed. The line will extend 8.5 miles from the Metro Exposition Line to Inglewood, El Segundo, and parts of industrial Los Angeles.

The Metro website offers a vague description of the economic benefits of the new Crenshaw/LAX Line, one that isn’t specific to Leimert Park. “The new Metro Rail extension will offer an…economic development and employment opportunities throughout Los Angeles County,” a paragraph on the website reads.

Some art centers in the community, though, believe the train could be a good thing for the children they serve, bringing in more traffic to their shows and therefore more funding for programs.

Brenda Shockley, director of the Greater Leimert Park Village Crenshaw Corridor Business Improvement District, said the train’s construction has obstructed foot traffic in the area, and Shockley expects some businesses will be forced to close their doors before they can experience the benefits of new patrons coming in. But in the long run, she said, the train could introduce new communities to Leimert Park’s arts history, and bring more people to the surrounding businesses.

Now 42, Lett attends jazz vocal classes at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Leimert Park.

Detours from the train’s construction currently discourage people from coming to the center, said Morrison, who has taught both adults and children in the area for eight years. But she, too, thinks the train could bring audiences with a taste for classical jazz to the center’s performances.

Lett, meanwhile, wants outsiders to better understand the Leimert Park she knows.

“The train is … causing a big ol’ mess right now, but it’s going to be alright,” Lett said. “Other cultures are able to come into our black community, and experience it, and that’s cool.”

Across the street at the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, Dorene Nelson was teaching an academic focus class on a recent Wednesday morning, while her three daughters hopped around their dance classes next door. In the same room where lunch is served, the girls faced the mirror in tutus and mismatched stockings, surrounded by framed portraits of famous black artists including Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.

Nelson enrolled her daughters in classes at the free performing arts classes two years ago after seeing the lack of arts resources at their school, Windsor Hills Elementary Math/Science Aerospace Magnet. (The school received a C in the Los Angeles Times’ arts education ranking.) Nelson hopes exposure from the train might bring in more donors.

“We might get financial help, and help from the parents,” Nelson said, nodding her head toward to the few parents lingering after hours. “It has to be one big community, one big village.”

Not everyone in the community is optimistic about the effect that the train might have on the community. Monica Doby Davis, one of Morrison’s students and a long-time Leimert Park resident, said she is wary of how other neighborhoods have gentrified as they increase in popularity.

“You have a lot of people who previously didn’t know about Leimert Park being able to come and enjoy what we have to offer, and the businesses being able to thrive.” said Davis, 40. “But, only as long as they are able to stay here and pay their rents.”