L.A. Community Wins New Rail Stop to Catalyze Local Economy

Six years of organizing and advocacy have resulted in victory for a coalition of residents, business owners, and grassroots leaders demanding a light rail stop in Leimert Park Village, the heart of Los Angeles’s African American community. The victory marks a crucial step toward stabilizing and revitalizing the last black business corridor in the region and a national cultural gem.

The Leimert Park Village station will be built along the Crenshaw-LAX Line, which has been designed to connect the disinvested communities of color of South L.A. to the airport and other economic centers in the city. The line was first conceived after the Watts civil unrest in 1965 and received renewed attention after the uprising of 1992 as a long-overdue investment to serve residents while promoting more equitable economic growth. The line is one of the largest public works projects in L.A. history. But it was planned to pass right through Leimert Park Village without a stop.

The neighborhood fought tenaciously to change that.

Catalyzing economic empowerment

Organizers believe the $120 million station will attract visitors from throughout the city and beyond to patronize the neighborhood’s distinctive Afrocentric shops, galleries, restaurants, and performance venues. Greater visibility combined with robust foot traffic would stimulate investment in what organizer Damien Goodmon calls the “daytime economy” – grocery stores, small offices, and other locally owned businesses that preserve the cultural integrity of the neighborhood while hiring residents and serving their everyday needs.

The community made the case that construction jobs are not the only economic benefit of infrastructure investments. Such investments succeed only if they strengthen existing businesses, create new ones, and create jobs that will remain in the neighborhood long after the project is built.

“We view this station as a catalytic project,” said Goodmon, executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition. “Our goal is economic development that is locally empowering.”

Persistence pays off

The 8.5-mile line, scheduled for completion in 2019, is projected to carry more than 21,000 riders a day. The plans have long included a station at a mall about a half-mile north of Leimert Park Village. Officials contended for years that a village station would cost too much and violate the standard of locating stations at least a mile apart. Activists fought back with data showing that more than half the stations on the metro system were no farther apart – and in some cases were closer – than what the community was proposing.

In a catch-22 response to community advocacy, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted in 2011 to support the station, but only if it could be built without adding a dime to the project’s $1.7 billion budget.

The subway coalition continued to mobilize and eventually prevailed. In May, the Los Angeles City Council approved $40 million for the station, one-third of the cost. A day later, under a motion sponsored by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a longtime champion of the station, the transportation board reversed its earlier decision and approved the rest of the funding. Dozens of community supporters packed the meeting and cheered the vote.

The next morning, about 100 people gathered in the park across the street from the station site to say prayers of thanks and celebrate. Ben Caldwell, an artist and independent filmmaker who runs Kaos Network, a renowned multimedia training and arts center in the neighborhood, said the vote allowed him to start “dreaming of possibilities,” including higher property values and investments by new, strong anchor tenants “who can help me pay for the art and social events I do in Leimert Park.”

But the story does not end there. Over the next six years, rail line construction along Crenshaw Boulevard threatens to disrupt, if not kill, the very businesses and sense of community that the station is intended to support.

The coalition has persistently advocated for underground designs and construction techniques that minimize the impacts along an 11-block section. In June, over community protests, the transportation board approved a nearly $1.3 billion construction contract that keeps that segment of the line at street level, rather than tunneling under it. But the coalition has not backed down. The group has filed public record requests with the agency, demanding release of competing contract bids that included the tunnel. The coalition hopes that a public outcry over the bidding process will compel the board to reverse its decision, as it did with the Leimert Park Village station.

The coalition also is exploring the establishment of a mitigation fund, to help small business owners survive as construction progresses. And the group will be watching to see that local residents receive a fair share of the construction jobs and contracts.

“We’ve got this one major victory but we need a whole lot more to carry this project through,” Goodmon said. “We need to make sure the line is designed in the appropriate way. We need to make sure it’s built correctly. We need to make sure it’s built by the community. This must be a community-driven project and based on principles of economic empowerment. That’s a long conversation.”