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Destination Crenshaw: Poised to Revitalize Crenshaw Corridor & Boost Black Businesses

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Sean Carmichael

Destination Crenshaw, a community-driven cultural infrastructure project that recently broke ground along its namesake legendary South L.A. boulevard, was originally conceived as a way to respond to the devastating impacts of the Metro LAX line construction project along Crenshaw and gentrification concerns around transit development by permanently stamping one of the City’s most historic neighborhoods as the cradle of Black American culture with spaces devoted to Black creativity, ingenuity, artistry and architectural excellence.

Created after years of community input, Destination Crenshaw is poised to revitalize the Crenshaw corridor with its efforts squarely focused on providing support for small businesses and creating a pipeline of workers in the construction trades. When completed, the project also will have added 10, beautifully designed community spaces and architectural features to a 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw, becoming a local and international standard for public works projects in Black communities. It is an ode to Black Los Angeles’ past, present and future. Although art and design are key parts of Destination Crenshaw, today, even as construction begins, it has evolved and expanded into an entirely different project.

As COVID-19 threatened to ravage Black-owned businesses, Destination Crenshaw recognized both the necessity and opportunity to ensure local businesses’ ability to survive. Out of this was born a targeted strategy, DC THRIVE, that has evolved this cultural infrastructure project into one focused not only on culture but also on creating one of the area’s most effective and robust businesses support networks.

It began with an effort by City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. Last Spring, with no end in sight to the COVID-19 lockdowns, the councilmember — who represents parts of the Crenshaw District — began an innovative senior meals program that linked area businesses with seniors in need. The program was designed to ensure seniors in Council District 8 had their nutritional needs met as the pandemic made it unsafe for them to be outside their homes; it was also designed to provide economic opportunity to businesses along the corridor, many of whom are located on Crenshaw.

“Our senior meals program was about taking care of our neighbors and elders first and foremost,” says Councilmember Harris-Dawson. “But also, about ensuring that our businesses can survive the economic fallout of this pandemic and eventually thrive again. We learned that we have what we need to support each other and build economic security in our communities.”

The program has sustained struggling Black-owned restaurants, some of which were in danger of going under, in an economic crisis that an estimated 40% of Black businesses would not be able to survive. The effort also birthed a new model for economic uplift – targeted small business support that enables home-grown businesses on the corridor to not only survive, but to thrive.

In the Spring of 2020, Destination Crenshaw used the momentum created by the council member’s meal program to launch the DC Thrive initiative to provide additional technical support and access to capital to ensure recovery efforts met the needs of the business community.

“The DC Thrive vision and its related services are critical to economic stability and growth in our community,” said Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, Executive Director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Los Angeles (LISC LA). Tunua, a South LA native and formerly executive director of the West Angeles Community Development Corporation further stated: “Jason Foster has done something remarkable — Councilmember Harris-Dawson created a platform for unprecedented business support, and Jason has built upon it with intention and purpose. He understands that Destination Crenshaw, above all, must be an economic asset to the community.”

DC Thrive facilitates business support by connecting Crenshaw businesses to funding opportunities such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), private grants, and technical assistance to help businesses market themselves and pivot toward being competitive in a digital and in-person marketplace.

Jordan’s Hot Dogs is one of more than 80 Black-owned businesses along the corridor that has engaged with Destination Crenshaw and is benefiting from DC Thrive.

“We funded placement of an intern from TEC Leimert, another one of our outstanding businesses, with Jordan’s Hot Dogs, providing them with social media marketing support at a time when business was moving almost entirely to the digital space because of COVID-19,” Foster said. “The result was a success for Jordan’s, for TEC Leimert, and for DC Thrive — it’s a model we plan to scale.”

Jordan’s experience is an encouraging response to critics who once worried about the Destination Crenshaw project — a community-driven response to the extension of the Crenshaw/LAX Rail Line being built at street-level along the neighborhood’s main corridor — would displace Black families and businesses.

This focus on economic stabilization now and revitalization in the long-term, has been shepherded by Destination Crenshaw’s new President and Chief Operating Officer, Jason Foster. It is, he says, “proof-positive of the kind of economic engine” Destination Crenshaw could become in South Los Angeles.

Foster, 37, who earned his degree in finance at Howard University took the helm six months ago. He says he was drawn to the role because of the project’s potential to not only be a catalyst for Black economic development along the boulevard, but a model for urban place keeping across the country “Here’s this opportunity to engage the community around a Black-led project that’s squarely focused on uplifting our community,” Foster said. “I had to be a part of that.”

Foster says a focus on helping Black people thrive is rooted in his family experiences, “I started my career by studying finance at Howard University. I wanted to understand how we as Black people can have a better relationship with money. How we can have our community pride and intrinsic value match our community aesthetic.”

Motivated to make a difference after watching his doctor father and engineer mother lose their home during the 2007 Great Recession, Foster had stints working across the country at non-profits, studying affordability in American cities, eventually working for River LA — the project that brought him to Los Angeles with his wife, Janelle. “Destination Crenshaw is the summation of all that work for me. It’s our community being engaged at the infrastructure level on how the city can serve our economic needs, while improving our quality of life.”

Even before responding to COVID-19, Destination Crenshaw was designed to foster economic opportunity in every aspect of its development. To that end, it established a 70% local hire goal for the construction phase, concentrating employment opportunities in a community that has long needed access to good paying jobs. “It makes us an industry leader,” says Foster.

“This is for us, and by us and unapologetically so,” says Karen Mack, a Destination Crenshaw Advisory Council Member and Executive Director of LA Commons in Leimert Park. “You can see in the assembly of community members at the table and the team that is doing the work this project is culturally competent, which we rarely if ever see these types of public infrastructure and community development projects.”

Mack is one of more than two dozen community members advising Destination Crenshaw, a group brought together by Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. “Thanks to his (Harris Dawson’s) leadership, significant community engagement had already begun when I came onto the project.” Foster sees his role as, “driving it forward to completion. “My north star is creating the best project possible for the Crenshaw community. Achieving equity at the neighborhood level is huge.”

Destination Crenshaw’s leadership team includes Black urban planners, construction firms, advisors for planned digital integrations, fundraisers, communicators and of course artists — more on that in a bit. Perhaps most notably so far, is its history making architectural team, led by Zena Howard — the Black woman who led the architectural design and development of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Howard is Principal and Managing Director of the North Carolina practice of Perkins + Will, which is a firm known for its work alongside the late Phil Freelon; Freelon’s legendary accomplishments are well noted among Black and non-Black architects alike.

“She gets this community, and she understands this project and that shows up throughout its design elements with guidance and input from the Advisory Council,” Foster said. Howard’s architectural elements for Destination Crenshaw are breathtaking. For example, she conceived of a design element inspired by the African Star Grass — vegetation used for bedding on slave ships that crossed the Atlantic, survived relocation and eventually took root in the Americas — that acts as connective tissue along the corridor. The elegant, visually stunning design captures the unifying experience of the African Diaspora. “It is resilient from an environmental standpoint and is really, truly symbolic of our resilience as a people. We grow where we are planted despite the obstacles,” Howard said.

Eventually, artists and architects with intimate knowledge of the design plans say, along Crenshaw Boulevard there will be markers representing this sense of Black resilience. “It’s a powerful representation of the Black experience in America and in Los Angeles,” notes Foster. “The crux of this design is specific to the Black experience of our community.”

Given its focus on economic development long before any art is installed it’s easy to forget that once complete, Destination Crenshaw will include more than 100 commissioned works of art, architecturally stunning community spaces and pocket parks, and hundreds of newly planted trees boosted by what could become a thriving commercial corridor.

This is a welcome development for many business owners who have suffered months of construction, on top of the impact of the pandemic. Development for the Crenshaw/LAX Line took away hundreds of parking spaces and trees that provided shaded areas

“It’s been extremely challenging for businesses, but Destination Crenshaw is proving that it is creating something that will have a lasting economic impact for this community and for our young people, says Cary Jordan, co-owner of Jordan’s Hot Dogs.

Changes are already visible along the corridor, last month fencing began going up around what will become the largest pocket park along the boulevard at Vernon and Crenshaw — Sankofa Park. Local artists have already begun submitting proposals to design artwork that will beautify the construction fencing over the next several months.

“My first priority is to complete the construction of the Destination Crenshaw project that the community envisioned. That’s my first job,” Foster said. “But more than that, I want kids in South L.A. to grow up in a healthy and prosperous environment, seeing beauty in their own neighborhoods — and know that this equitable investment provided hope for their futures.”

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