‘Heart of Black L.A.’

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is the community’s Grand Central Station

By Janice Hayes Kyser

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The ownership of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza — a place many Blacks see as a symbol of economic and cultural significance — is in limbo again with the latest potential buyer facing another deadline this week.

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is close once again to finding a new buyer after several years of offers being made and rescinded, protests to keep the property in Black ownership and conflicting ideas on what’s next for the coveted and controversial parcel of land in the heart of the city’s Black community.

While neither Beverly Hills-based Harridge Development Company, who reportedly has submitted an offer to buy and redevelop the mall and the mall’s current owner Capri Capital Partners Group, would comment about the pending sale (an extended deadline reportedly expires Aug. 13), community leaders remain passionate about their visions for the shopping center located at 3650 Martin Luther King Blvd.

“The mall is Grand Central Station for our community,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the 8th Council District, in which part of the development is located and also grew up in the areas. “It is in many ways the public square where large events that symbolize the culture, the struggle and the strength of our community.

“The negative side is that the mall has never gotten the investment it deserves,” he added. “We’ve always been given something below the standard and told to be happy about it.”

Today, Macy’s and TJ Maxx are the anchor stores in the 550,000 square foot mall built on 35 acres with spaces for some 7,000 cars. There is also an Albertson’s grocery store.

Mall supporters say the rail line extension along Crenshaw Boulevard that will connect the Crenshaw neighborhood and Leimert Park to the city of Inglewood and Los Angeles International Airport makes the property even more attractive and positions it to not only serve the Black and brown communities surrounding the center, but be a regional draw for Black art, fashion and culture.

Since it was built in 1947, the plaza, which was one of the first regional indoor malls in the country, has been a meeting place for community leaders and residents who have marked milestones at the mall’s restaurants and stores.

With its modern streamlined architecture, the mall has also been a cultural hub housing Black-owned book stores, restaurants and the Museum of African American Art located on the third floor of the Macy’s store. The mall is also home to the city’s Pan African Film Festival

In addition, numerous social and civic organizations continue to meet in the mall’s community space.

But in recent years, like many indoor malls, the center has languished, losing major anchor tenants like Walmart and Sears and watching mall traffic diminish as anxiety over what’s next for this iconic development in the Crenshaw Corridor continue to rise.

One group that has turned concern into action is Downtown Crenshaw Rising, a nonprofit community organization concerned that the Black community would be forced out of the mall by national chains under new ownership. The group helped quash an offer submitted by LIVWRK and DFH partners last December. Prior to that, in June 2020, the group opposed a $130 million offer for Baldwin Hills from CIM Group because of its dealings with Kushner Real Estate Group, which is controlled by the family of Jaren Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump.

The group, which says it raised $28 million to purchase the mall, played the race card when it accused Deutsche Bank, the company hired by the malls owners to sell the property, of refusing to sell the shopping center to Black investors. Damien Goodmon, a Downtown Crenshaw Rising board member, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Gina Fields, chairperson of the Empowerment Congress West Neighborhood Development Council, says while Black ownership would be great, her concern is that that something, rather than nothing happen to revitalize the mall.

“We would love to see the mall remain in the hands of an African-American owner if the sellers can find that and bring it to fruition,” Fields said. “But as a neighborhood council, our goal is to see our community thrive in the midst of a shopping desert. We recognize in order to maintain the quality of life in our area the mall needs to be there as a shopping, dining and gathering place.”

Fields said while folks are fighting over what’s best for the center, her fear is that it will continue to languish.

“None of us want to see more urban blight,” she said. “That is not a good outcome for anyone.”

Still, James Burks, former director of cultural affairs for the city of Los Angeles, says the project must have some level of Black ownership and design.

“Far too often, others have used their cookie cutter designs to serve the Black community,” Burks said. “But as exemplified by the Crenshaw Mall, that does not work. Even the residents of Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, Ladera Hills and Culver City — arguably the wealthiest Black communities in the United States — do not shop at or support the Crenshaw Mall. Only those projects identified as having a Black motif are consistently supported.”

Activist and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable, says one reason people are so invested in the mall is that it is a symbol of pride for the city’s Black community.

“The mall as symbol and substance of potential Black economic strength,” Hutchinson said. “Many deem the mall fight crucial because of the perceived threat that a gentrified major corporate owned and run mall in a rapidly gentrifying South L.A. will further dislocate, impoverish and destabilize the Black community.”

In spite of the ups and downs and uncertainty facing the mall, Councilman Harris-Dawson encourages the community to stay connected and involved.

“I want the residents of our community to stay active, stay engaged, no one should be seduced into notion that it will take care of itself or that elected officials can create something good and stop something bad,” he said. “It really takes a full court press and this project is that important to all of us.”