EYES ON THE PRIZE: Downtown Crenshaw proposes community stakeholders pool funds to buy plaza

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A community group hopes to raise enough funds to purchase the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and make it the economic focal point of a new Crenshaw District. (Courtesy photo)

By Shirley Hawkins, Contributing Writer

CRENSHAW — A major architectural firm has teamed up with a local group to design new plans for the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which is still up for sale.

Damien Goodmon, executive director of the nonprofit Crenshaw Subway Coalition and a board member of Downtown Crenshaw, held a virtual town hall meeting Aug. 15 where he announced that the major architecture firm SmithGroup, a global firm with more than 1,300 employees, had joined Downtown Crenshaw to work with local architects Davon Johnson and Cory Henry on plans for the mall.

During the town hall, entitled “Reimagining the Crenshaw Mall,” Goodmon said that a campaign is underway for community stakeholders to buy the mall.

“Downtown Crenshaw just opened applications for membership starting at just $5 to have a stake in ownership in the mall,” Goodmon said. “This is the most positively transformative Black community urban development project in America. I have been humbled by the many community members and leaders who have come to the table, and the incredible talent we have assembled.

Goodmon has been pushing for the community to join together and purchase the mall since April when the CIM Group, a national real estate company with ties to Jared Kushner and the Trump family, announced plans to purchase the mall, which has served South Los Angeles residents since 1947.

The CIM group wanted to change the focus of the mall from commercial and retail sales to office space.

But sustained community outcry by local pastors, community activists and concerned residents who felt the purchase would accelerate gentrification, launched a vigorous signature petition that persuaded the CIM Group to withdraw its offer.

Goodmon said that despite the grassroots effort to buy the mall, other offers keep pouring in. The current owner of the mall has sent a deadline of Aug. 27 for offers on the mall.

“They are trying to sell the mall and everyone and their mama are trying to buy it,” Goodmon said. “We’re not going to let anybody just come into our community and buy our mall. We’ve already knocked out the CIM group. … They thought they were going to come into Crenshaw and tell us what they were going to do to the mall and not even care what we were doing.”

Goodmon has proposed launching a five-day fund-raising campaign to raise $50,000 as a down payment on the mall.

“That same energy that goes into stopping outside invaders, let’s put that energy behind getting the community to come together to acquire our assets,” he said. “It’s not about what any one of us wants to see, it’s about what we want to see collectively.”

Jan Williams, who leads the Downtown Crenshaw Action Team and Downtown Crenshaw Los Angeles, said, “I’m invested in the project because I grew up in the Crenshaw District. And I hope that one of these days when I have grandchildren they will also get to experience the Crenshaw that I did.

“As a school bus driver, I’ve served the community for almost 20 years, so I’m a public employee, so my money owns that mall and the last thing I want to see happen is to see my money push my people out of the community,” she said.

“We need to raise some money so that we can buy our mall and keep our culture right here in Crenshaw.

“So what we need to do as a collective is first, have a petition that community residents can sign and get 50,000 signatures within the next five days and have this petition go viral with the hashtag #40acresandamall.”

“We’re asking for $5 up to a $500 donation,” Williams said. “You can sign and share the petition at www.downtowncrenshaw.com/petition. We need people to start their own fundraiser, as well.”

Zurita Jones, co-founder of the Baldwin Leimert Crenshaw Local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, said she knew that developers are attempting to gentrify the community.

“This fight is not a new fight in the African-American community,” she said. “My struggles really started when a nuisance abatement lawsuit was put on our property by the city of Los Angeles at the 425-unit Chesapeake apartments. I came back to (Chesapeake) to assist my mom, who was getting older and losing her hearing.”

Jones said a suit filed by the city on her mother’s property labeled all the tenants as cocaine sales people and gangsters.

When they do that, she added, they are able to change the covenants of your lease and your rental agreements that you have been paying on for years. With those changes, they can start evicting you for things that you have already done or have the ability to do under your original lease.

“We’re talking about simple things like having a barbecue in your yard, letting your kids play on the grass or riding their bike or limit the type and how many visitors you have coming to your apartment,”Jones said.

“I know my mother isn’t a cocaine sales person and I know that I’m not a gangster and none of my children are gangsters, so that’s just a way for them to take the property from us and move the land from right under our feet.”

“When you have a mechanism that is allowed to do this to long-term tenants, it is a simple and easy way to move everyone out.

Jones said that is why she formed the Tenant’s Association of Los Angeles.

“Our goal at the tenants union is to maintain housing for those who are already housed,” she said. “We’re here in a community where there is increased gentrification in our neighborhoods and individuals do not know what their rights are.

“That is the number one way to make sure you don’t maintain your housing which could lead to illegal eviction. I was able to rally around a handful of tenants on the property and created a Tenant’s Association of Los Angeles in less than seven days. I contacted some lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and we went to court.

“Being a collective body in a community is very important. You have to use your community voice. We have struggled, but we have strength in numbers and those numbers can move mountains.”