Q AND A WITH JASON FOSTER
By Darlene Donloe
When Jason Foster accepted the position of president and chief operating officer of Destination Crenshaw last October, he said he walked into the job with his eyes wide open.
A consultant with the project since 2019, Foster, 36, believes wholeheartedly in Destination Crenshaw, a nonprofit described as a transformative infrastructure project that will boost the Black community through economic development, job creation and environmental healing while elevating Black art and culture.
When completed, the open-air museum will consist of a 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard from 48th to 60th streets that will be transformed into a commercial corridor linked by green community spaces, parklets, hundreds of newly planted trees and more than 100 commissioned works of art by local and renowned artists.
The iconic Crenshaw Wall, an 800-foot-long mural featuring Black activists and performers along Crenshaw Boulevard, will be rebuilt and restored as part of the overall project.
Spearheaded by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the project is designed by Perkins&Will, known for its design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The landscape design is by Studio-MLA.
The idea for Destination Crenshaw was created in response to the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Rail Line on the ground level instead of underground.
Destination Crenshaw is not without controversy. There are those in the Black community who fear gentrification and the harm to businesses along the corridor, and there are others who would like to see the funds put into schools and affordable housing.
Foster doesn’t dismiss those “valid concerns,” but, if given a chance, he said he will tout the merits of what he believes an enterprise like Destination Crenshaw brings to the Black community.
“Before we had an idea what the project would look like, or be, we met with hundreds of activists, residents, and neighborhood associations to have a conversation around what they would want to see in a response to the [rail line] construction,” Foster said. “So while we were doing community engagement, we discussed how to take the negative of the train construction and turn it into the positive of creating a thriving corridor that celebrates the history, the present and the future of Black L.A.”
Contributing Writer Darlene Donloe recently caught up with Foster, a married father of two, to talk about his role with Destination Crenshaw and to get an update on the project.
DD: What do you see as your role with Destination Crenshaw?
JF: One of the most important things I’d like to do is reengage the community and provide a sense of hope that our community can get the resources we need. … The time is now to really get the changes we want and deserve and not let some of that momentum from last summer go to waste.
DD: Why did you want to take on the presidency of Destination Crenshaw?
JF: I started my career by studying finance at Howard University. I wanted to understand how we as Black people can make and have more money and have a better relationship with money. I grew up with a dad who was a doctor, and a mom who was an engineer. When I was away at Howard, they lost their home. Coming out of that was traumatic.
I moved back to Knoxville and worked with kids at a nonprofit. Then I moved to New York to work on affordable housing. From there, I got a relationship with crisis management and learned about the unaffordability of some cities. When I moved back to L.A., I wanted to be part of a positive change. A mentor put me in contact with River LA, a startup nonprofit.
Destination Crenshaw is the summation of all that work for me. There are not a lot of times when you get to work in a place where you fit. Destination Crenshaw touches on all the things I’ve done in the past. I fit.
DD: What did you think when you first heard about the Destination Crenshaw project?
JF: When I heard about it I was intrigued. It was Black people participating at the level of infrastructure. That’s the highest level of privilege. That literally is the goal — to get community members to make the changes they want to see. Some are fearful of change because it hasn’t been positive for Black people in this country.
DD: What is your role as president and COO?
JF: Because of the leadership of [City Councilman] Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and his team, they already had a community council established. There were core people who were already there. When I came into the fold, they already had the plans. The project was already developed. My role is to be able to come in and drive 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.
DD: For those who don’t know, what can people expect from Destination Crenshaw?
JF: The Destination Crenshaw project is meant to acknowledge the Crenshaw community through the history and through the present residents and also hopeful about its future. The design of the project is based on the North African Star Grass and is our unifying narrative.
The Star Grass traveled here by slave ship. It’s seen as resilient and grows in all types of environments. The crux of what this design will be is hopefully familiar to Black people. It is specifically for you and isn’t seen anywhere else in this country.
DD: Is Destination Crenshaw necessary? If so, why?
JF: I believe it is — 100 %. Apparently what takes place when you have infrastructure improvements is a real rapid change in the community. Change at the infrastructure level hasn’t benefited Black people as it should. Destination Crenshaw is a way for us to claim the space of Crenshaw and Black Los Angeles. It’s something that is essential.
We need to create equity. We need to have a space for us that is claimed by us — that we feel safe in. A space we can thrive in.
DD: There are some within the Black community who are more concerned with businesses and schools and especially affordable housing. What do you say to community members who oppose the project to convince them it’s worthy?
JF: Why can’t we have nice things as Black people? Why, when they are created, do they have to be for someone else? This is about improvement to their neighborhoods. It can be a model. When people have concerns, it’s valid. Our project is different. We have community members who have been participating in this since the beginning. We have a jobs pipeline project. We have art and culture focus. We acknowledge the creatives.
I think a lot of concerns people have is … what’s going to happen next? Are you just going to create this beautiful thing and that’s it? We don’t believe that’s the case.
We create Destination Crenshaw the project, but we also create a nonprofit that is regenerative and supports the community and the programming of the space moving forward. So we continue working with the businesses, we continue working with youth education components and artists and creatives in the area — so they can be seen — and continue to be seen.
DD: Some community members have real concerns about gentrification?
JF: The project was created to stabilize the 43 businesses along the Crenshaw corridor, the most important Black corridor in the city. Because of the [rail line] construction, there were 300 parking spaces taken away. There were 400 trees cut down. It made the corridor difficult for these businesses to work and thrive.
We have six schools along that corridor. We’re trying to build programming with those schools so we can have a class of young people who grow up around Black art and a Black experience — like it’s normal in 20-30 years — and how powerful that can be to grow up with that experience. Concerns are valid, but we provided all the solutions you would want in a project like this.
DD: How would you describe that 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw as it sits right now?
JF: Without Destination Crenshaw, it’s just another train route. This is a community revitalization project. It’s not just about beauty. The art will celebrate our beauty.
It’s devastating for businesses along the corridor. The years of construction they have been through. The elimination of parking spaces. The deforestation of the trees. Destination Crenshaw was created to right those wrongs.
DD: I understand the budget is $100 million and will be divided between art, construction and land. When will this project be completed and what will be the final cost?
JF: Because of COVID we took a step back and really focused on small businesses. So, we’re pushing into the middle of 2022. We signed our notice to proceed so our construction team can mobilize. People are starting to move down toward the site. The fencing is up on Sankofa Park (Vernon and Crenshaw), which will be our first pocket park. We’re excited to see this start in the coming months. We did our first [request for proposal] for our construction fence art project. We have some community artists actually giving some designs for the construction art fences that will go up on the 1.3 miles. We will put up our first commissions in the coming months. It’s a way to give commissions to artists. Artists have been suffering during COVID. It’s an opportunity to put money in their pockets.
It’s a $100 million project. We raised the $50 million for construction. There is another $35 million that is for the art commissions, as well as our exhibition and design so when you talk about those education components, that is included in the $35 million and an app so people can learn more about the corridor, the history and different stories and narratives that have happened over the years. There is money included in that capital campaign for the endowment of the nonprofit and three years of operating expenses.
DD: Is it fair to call this a beautification project?
JF: The art component of our project is much more than beautification. It is an acknowledgment of Black people and our history and what we hope to see in our future. Typical design in Los Angeles does not acknowledge Black people. It does not acknowledge us. That’s why people are concerned.
I want to press that our project is unapologetically Black and is for Black people to see and feel acknowledged. That is our goal. When people say they are concerned about it, that is an entry to a conversation, not the end.
It’s important that we as a community see something for us, and achieve equity in this space. Doing typical revitalization, it’s not a given that the project is going to think about community. It’s not a given that small businesses receive services and that they are acknowledged. It’s not a given that artists are brought to the table and factored in as a job component. It is not a given that local hire is stressed, 70% is unprecedented. I want to continue to communicate this to people so we can get the community’s support.
DD: You seem to have a genuine enthusiasm for the project.
JF: I’m very excited about this. I’ve been in community revitalization for about 12 years now. I’ve never seen this level of engagement and support and hope for what this project can mean for the community. Partner it with great support from the councilman’s office, the team we have put together with Perkins and Will, it’s incredible. Personally, to experience what Black design is in a public space. I’m excited to be a part of this. I don’t take it for granted.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.