Lisa Collins with Tina Samepay
In 1970, South L.A. was eighty percent Black with 24 of the 28 neighborhoods making up South L.A —from Vermont Square, Watts and “the Jungle” (now Baldwin Village) to View Park and Windsor Hills remaining majority Black through the late 1970s. By 2010, however, South L.A. was sixty-four percent Latino with the number of communities where African-Americans were the majority dropping from 24 to six by 2012. Today, that number has dwindled even further, and with two light rail transit lines running through it, cultural landmarks like Leimert Park, View Park and Baldwin Hills (the latter characterized as the black Beverly Hills) are also experiencing an influx of whites.
That L.A.’s racial makeup has dramatically shifted over the past two decades with blacks losing ground in areas once considered to be African-American strongholds comes as little surprise and is part of what some dub as “Black erasure”, a term being used more and more often to describe the exclusion of the contributions of Black people in history and culture, and even Black communities across the nation.
For Pulitzer Prize winning author Nikole Hannah-Jones (1619), it is the omission of blacks from history, calling it “symbolic of how history is shaped by people who decide what’s important and what’s not. And that erasure is also a powerful statement.”
In politics, it is marked by the exclusion of black voices from political policy discussions that shape their lives. In culture, it is the erasure of the contribution of Blacks in everything from art to the silver screen. And in cities across the nation, it is the erasure of black people—dead and alive— due to displacement.
Just last month, the city of Tampa apologized for its role in erasing historic Black cemeteries. Last year, Black entrepreneurs in Tulsa reported being threatened with erasure once again as millions in financial incentives to revitalize the famed Greenwood district shut them out of the community’s most prestigious development projects and priced them out of prime retail locations.
Last year, community activists failed in their attempts to thwart the sale of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and turn it into a community hub, fearing that its revitalization—to include new condos, apartments, offices and restaurants—will erase its cultural significance. Then right here in L.A. County there is the troubling trend of blacks disappearing from the landscape.
“We are at a critical point when we either hold on to Black voice and vision in the political arena in L.A County, or we can experience dilution and the erasure of Black voices and values in the creation of a multiracial L.A. County,” said Pastor Eddie Anderson, a South L.A. Regional Community Organizer for L.A. Voice.
More simply put by former State Senator Rod Wright, “The problem is that we’re shedding Black people. If you look at areas that were black twenty years ago, you’ve got Baldwin Hills becoming white and South Central becoming brown.”
“The price of a piece of dirt in much of Los Angeles is just so expensive and so many older black people —between reverse mortgages and other family issues—we’re not holding on to real estate.
L.A. Times columnist Erika Smith referenced the issue in a recent column titled, “To Protect South L.A., ‘Don’t sell your damn house!’, which stressed the transfer of generational wealth in holding on to property in slowing the pace of gentrification.
Community leaders fear the loss of equity as the exodus of African-Americans leaving L.A County rises. Many feel that the sense of loss is exacerbated by a legacy of racist asset-stripping coupled with the deep worry about Black erasure due to current displacement pressures from gentrification.
“When we lose equity in real estate, we’re losing equity politically. We are losing equity in our community and in our educational systems,” said Pastor Michael Fisher. “I feel like my generation is the last of the Mohicans. It’s on us to try and teach the next generation.”
Fisher says the current generation’s apathy towards community investment is so concerning that it sometimes keeps him up at night.
“They are like, ‘why do I need to take over my grandmother’s house? I’ll just sell it, so I can travel and live my best life.’ It’s really scary. They’re a no contract generation. They don’t want to be tied to anything.”
It is a message that in large part has fallen on deaf ears.
“The walls are closing in on Black people in Los Angeles from all sides and we’re quietly becoming an endangered species,” maintains Danny Carter, a co-founder of Buy Back the Block, an organization that holds monthly meetings geared toward educating the community on building generational wealth and whose slogan is ‘Don’t Sell Grandma’s House.’
“California in general has anti-Black policies. Take San Francisco for example, Black people are only 2%. That’s the model, displacing Black people through gentrification.”
With the advent of the new Rams and Clippers stadiums in Inglewood has come skyrocketing real estate prices and investors jockeying to cash in on the new development surrounding the stadiums with the L.A. area reportedly ranking as the No. 1 choice in North America in a survey of global commercial real estate investors in 2017.
“When we move and take the money, the communities can’t be sustained, and they are taken over by people who do not look like us. If we are scattered around, there will never be money allocated towards our people,” says Salaam-Baile, CEO and founder of the Think Watts Foundation
Salaam-Baile believes that an overall lack of education on how economies and communities work in regard to funding and resources, is really the driving force behind Black’s departure from L.A.
He says if African-Americans do not want to live in L.A for whatever reason, it is important to at least own the property, especially in the inner city.
“If our community was in control of the neighborhood, we’d control rent prices and the income it takes to stay in the community. The system is set up for us to move, so they can take the funding and resources out of the community,” Stix shared.
“Property value lowers, crime rises, and it allows big money investors who have access to capital, to buy up the neighborhood.”
“The displacement issue is absolutely critical in defining gentrification,” says Dana Cuff, a professor of urban design, adding that while most think of their homes as investments, “the problem is people are displaced unwillingly, and they’re priced out of the market in one way or the other.”
“I would like to see our community leaders leverage Black wealth to build housing, grocery stores, banks, media, etc.,” states Patrick MacFarlane who currently works as a Government Relations Manager for a childcare non-profit. It would be great if governments acknowledged all they’ve stolen from Black people over centuries.”
In fact, L.A. county’s history of displacing blacks runs deep.
There is Bruce’s Beach, which recalls the story of Willa and Charles Bruce who purchased the Black-owned Manhattan Beach resort in 1912, which later became a popular resort destination for Black Angelenos. Racial tensions began to mount as Ku Klux Klan members harassed the Bruce’s, along with any African-Americans who went beyond the ropes marking the beach’s boundaries. Eventually, blacks were run out of the majority white town and in 1924, Manhattan Beach officially voted to seize Bruce’s property under the guise of eminent domain, to build a park.
Then there was Sugar Hill, a wealthy, Black Los Angeles enclave in Santa Monica. Its residents—including Black doctors, entrepreneurs and celebrities like Hattie McDaniel —defeated initial attempts to displace them in court by whites seeking to enforce racially restrictive covenants only to have the California Highway Commission approve a freeway that would plow right through Sugar Hill using eminent domain to displace 600 predominantly Black families.
It would be 70 years before Santa Monica would redress the historical actions that predominantly hurt Black and brown communities with the announcement in December 2021 that the city would offer priority placement for its coveted affordable housing program to families and their descendants who were displaced in the 50s and 60s.
In the decade preceding white flight in Los Angeles during the sixties there were six bombings and four incidents of arson against black homeowners recorded in Los Angeles County by the County Commission on Human Rights.
Today, however is a much different story. According to the 2020 U.S Census, African-Americans make up roughly 9% of L.A.’s population. Although the smallest demographic group, African-Americans continue to experience serious social and economic disparities.
“Black people are leaving LA because it’s expensive to live here. Our community lacks the kind of institutions that would sustain our economy. We need more Black employers and financial institutions,” MacFarlane said. “We also need private investments to build and rebuild businesses and institutions that can sustain L.A.’s Black community.”
Several longtime factors continue to influence African-Americans exodus from L.A including high crime rates, gang-violence, access to jobs, as well as longtime disinvestment of African-American communities.
Rising rents continue to be an issue beyond race facing whites who have been priced out of other areas and are now returning to predominantly Black communities that they fled decades ago.
As African-Americans leave L.A, their influx into places like Lancaster, Palmdale and the Inland Empire continues to rise. From 1980-1990 the population of Blacks in the San Bernardino-Riverside area rose by over 100%.
For South L.A. resident Avery Watts, leaving L.A for the South was more about reconnecting with his roots, adding “You definitely can’t leave out the fact that we’ve been priced out for less quality. We are having to deal with unaffordable ownership or rentals with lackluster schools in dangerous neighborhoods.”
As rates of African-Americans continue to decline, the idea of “Black political power” is now based largely upon the support of the Latinx community, and after what it took for Blacks to attain political clout, there is some consternation for seeing it diluted by the compromises a broader coalition—including Latinos—would mean.
A major concern is the attitudes that some Black Angelenos have towards immigration and the marginalization they face by the Latinx community in the workplace.
“The economic opportunities go to the Latino community. They are the gatekeepers, and they help each other while closing the door on Black people. Especially in areas needed most like the Los Angeles Unified School District,” said Kenesha Jenkins, a longtime Los Angeles resident, who is among those who equate such practices as resulting in labor workforces that are almost 100% Latinx.
Observed former State Senator Rod Wright Wright, “We’re going to end up having to work in multi-racial coalitions and in some instances our issues may be carried by Latino elected officials.”
Such coalitions like L.A. Voice—a multi-racial and multi-faith organization training residents to organize on key issues including most recently redistricting—are already in motion.
By all accounts, there are no easy answers or solutions as shifting demographics have continually evolved and there are so many factors, including thriving businesses that foster job creation. Realtor Janet Singleton, who advocates that Blacks get into the real estate market any way they can, points to the many financial institutions like Union Bank that assist first time home buyers with programs that provide down payments.
“I am in bidding war right now for a one of a kind historical property once owned by blacks in View Park with 17 offers on it.,” said Singleton. “My only wish is that blacks would get their financial priorities in order. Buy the house first and then the car. Most people don’t understand that a car purchase really impacts your debt and then you can’t afford to buy.”
“Bottom line”, says South L.A. resident Myra Johnson, “because we rent more than own, we have become more vulnerable to being displaced and with housing prices in the black community topping $1 million in places like Inglewood, it appears we are going to have to learn to live together and appreciate each other’s cultures. My only hope is that we don’t lose our own in the process.”