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How to Spend a Day in Leimert Park Village Exploring Black Culture

Thrillist logo Thrillist 2/25/2022 Ayomari

© Azla Vegan

The South Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park Village is outlined by Rodeo Road, Crenshaw Blvd, and Vernon Ave, while its namesake, Leimert Park Blvd, transits all three streets, with Leimert Park Plaza acting as its centerpiece. The area is named after founder Walter H. “Tim” Leimert, a successful residential developer at the time the neighborhood was developed in 1928. Now recognized as a thriving hub for Black culture in LA, in addition to being one of America’s nine historic Black neighborhoods, Leimert Park has undergone significant changes since 1948, when racial covenants prevented people of color from living there. 

That year, thanks to the Shelley v. Kraemer case, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of removing racial covenants from the area, declaring them restrictive and legally unenforceable. As Black residents began moving in, white residents opted for Westside neighborhoods like Manhattan Beach and Westwood, allowing Leimert Park to evolve into a mecca for the city’s Black communities—a designation it still enjoys today. 

As one of the largest Black middle-class neighborhoods in America, Leimert Park has served as a safe space for Black expression for seven decades. Even as the Metro expansion and comparatively lower rents attract newcomers to the area, the neighborhood has remained unapologetically Black, with Black residents making up 80% of its population. Leimert Park Village is steeped in Black history, culture, and pride, and one could easily spend their day immersing themselves in the sounds, flavors, and art of the neighborhood.

“What's really special about [Leimert Park] is that we as African Americans, or Black-identifying Americans, go there and we feel free, we feel seen, we feel understood and it's the one place where we don't feel on exhibit or display,” reflects notable soul singer Jimetta Rose, who frequently performs in the village.

© Azla Vegan

Enjoy a taste of the Diaspora

Before setting off for a day of exploring the neighborhood, get a jumpstart at Harun Coffee & Gallery or Hot And Cool Cafe. In addition to coffee and tea drinks, each location offers small bites, community programming, and Diaspora-inspired apparel.

If you’re a fan of spicy food, you’ll want to put family-owned Ackee Bamboo on your hit list. This casual Jamaican spot has been around for over 16 years, with favorite dishes that include jerk chicken, oxtails, and curry goat, plus a full vegetarian menu. Swing below the Mason Dixon Line at Delicious Southern Cuisine, another family-owned spot that’s beloved for comfort-laden dishes like smothered chicken, spare ribs, and gumbo. If you’re in the mood for something a little lighter, head to Swift Cafe, which was opened by South LA native and nutritionist Kyndra McCrary in 2019, with the intention of offering healthy fare that draws from Caribbean, Indian, and Latin influences, so residents don’t have to leave the neighborhood for fresh, whole foods. Straight from the Horn of Africa, Azla Vegan is an Ethiopian eatery with food so good it’s been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins & Dives Food Network series. Serving three scoops of culture, community, and cream, All Chill Inc. is a new concept that combines an ice cream shop with a hip hop museum. Enjoy a scoop while perusing legendary hip hop memorabilia, from iconic clothing to posters, records, and much more. © Aziz Gallery

Admire the artistic tapestry of the neighborhood

Though just 1.19-square mile, this small gem of a neighborhood boasts countless sights and landmarks, with Leimert Park Plaza serving as the flowerbed for the area’s blooming businesses. Colorful and lively, residents gather there to socialize, support, and celebrate Black culture, with the Vision Theater acting as the nostalgic centerpiece of it all. Built by billionaire Howard Hughes, and opened in 1932, the Spanish-Colonial-style theater is the tallest structure in Leimert Park Plaza, with art deco flourishes that grab the attention of Angelenos far and wide. It operated until 1968, when Jehovah’s Witnesses purchased it and renamed it The Watchtower. It would remain so until the early 1990s when African American actor Marla Gibbs, of The Jeffersons and 227 fame, purchased it. In the late ‘90s, with Gibbs facing financial troubles, ownership of the theater was transferred to the City of Los Angeles. Since then, the Department of Cultural Affairs has managed the property, enacting an $11 million dollar rehabilitation plan. External renovations were completed in 2012, including interior updates to the auditorium, with hopes of reopening to the public soon. While we must patiently wait for films to return to Vision Theater, it continues to host community events and theatrical productions.

Surrounding Vision Theater is Leimert Park’s Cultural Retail, which comprises many Black-owned establishments around Leimert Park Plaza, as well as on 43rd St and Degnan Blvd. Founded by brothers Alonzo and Dale Davis in 1967, in the wake of the Watts Uprising, the Brockman Gallery was created to nurture the early careers of up-and-coming Black artists, exhibiting work from famous figures like Betye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and John Biggers to name a few. Although it no longer exists, the Davis brothers’ gallery laid the foundational spirit for the Leimert Park Village we know today, helping it become a place of opportunity and community support for Black Americans.

“To me, Leimert Park represents an alternative way of looking at the status quo,” says Addis Daniel, Cultural Director of Leimert Park Rising. “I think we are inundated with this one-sided history of Black people in this country where every time we have something good going for ourselves, the angry whites come and take it away. Or that Black people can't do things together. The success and longevity of Leimert Park is a case study on what it could look like if we really had our OWN.” Leimert Park Rising is a free, annual Juneteenth festival that’s been ongoing for 11 years and promotes community and connectedness, while celebrating Black culture and history with live music, vendors, and food trucks.

In recent decades, a new wave of artists and gallerists have arrived in the neighborhood to build on the Brockman Gallery legacy. Art + Practice is a nonprofit committed to helping transition-age foster youth. In addition to free art programming, it has an exhibition space and moderated artist talks. Opened with the goal of providing quality performance arts instruction, the Fernando Pullum Arts Center is a bastion of hope for at-risk youth. Fun fact: Several scenes from the popular HBOMax show Insecure were shot at the Center. Stop by Aziz Gallery, where for decades, owner Aziz Diagne has given young artists the opportunity to showcase their work. Look forward to a new neighborhood mural from artist Mickalene Thomas that will be on view at the Leimert Park Metro Station that’s slated to open soon. The new line is a part of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project, which was created to better connect sections of South LA. © California Jazz & Blues Museum

Celebrate Black music history and modern-day sounds 

Leimert’s Black music history can be traced back to at least 1961, when pianist Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, an ongoing jazz ensemble whose “pay-it-forward” ethos has nurtured over 300 musicians. Other notable establishments include the recently reopened Maverick’s Flat Grill and Jazz, a Historic-Cultural Monument that first opened in 1966 with The Temptations as the headliner. 

Travel back even further through music history at the California Jazz & Blues Museum, which is temporarily housed in the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center while the original location undergoes remodels. Legendary jazz singer and founder of both establishments, Barbara Morrison has ensured local children have an artistic outlet.

Since the early ‘80s, Leimert has hosted a weekly drum circle featuring a range of musical styles from across the African Diaspora, with drummers from various parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean islands. The sound pulsates through the African Marketplace, where local vendors sell hard-to-find Afro-centric goods, clothing, art, and a wide array of foods. As South LA contends with gentrification and displacement of long-time residents, longstanding events like the African Marketplace and drum circle are all the more integral.

A creative outlet for many young musicians, The World Stage was opened in 1989, by legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood. This educational and performance arts gallery offers a range of workshops, often for free. Over the years they’ve held performances by jazz greats like Alice Coltrane, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and Freddie Hubbard. Although there are only 100 seats at capacity, the pristine sound makes it feel like a music hall.

Leimert also has a thriving hip hop scene. KAOS Network, a center created by filmmaker Ben Caldwell and dedicated to sharing new media technology, housed staples like Project Blowed, a Thursday night “open-mic workshop” for young emcees looking to build performance confidence. It helped give us West Coast legends like Bus Driver, Medusa, Aceyalone, Jurassic Five, and Freestyle Fellowship. The space later acquired Bananas, the longest-running independent showcase in LA, held every third Thursday.

“KAOS Network is legendary on all levels. It’s a lifeline to artists that’s unique and you can truly be yourself without judgment,” shares Noa James, a West Coast lyricist and event promoter.

© @sikadwimfo

Support local Black-owned businesses

Now that you’ve filled your belly and received a healthy dose of culture, you’ll want to grab a neighborhood souvenir. Eso Won Books is not only a community landmark, it’s considered one of the world’s pre-eminent, independent Black-owned bookstores. Find the latest from local artists and designers at Sole Folks, a creative retail outlet with a cooperative work-space twist. The shop focuses mainly on up-and-coming entrepreneurs, also offering an incubator program with brand-building curriculum and business resources. For handcrafted, Diaspora-inspired jewelry, visit Sika, who opened his shop in 1992 and now at 81-years-old, remains faithfully in the same location. If caffeine isn’t your preferred method for a pick-me-up, visit the recently opened Gorilla RX Wellness. Owned by Kika Keith, the dispensary holds the title of being the first Black-woman-owned cannabis dispensary in South LA. They’ve had an inspiring journey, working for years to overcome predatory investor practices, landlords doubling rent, and opportunistic lobbyists.

Even as local residents navigate between progress and the negative effects of gentrification, there’s still so much to celebrate in Leimert Park, including a long legacy of Black excellence and a future that’s looking just as bright. The community that strove to make this neighborhood the African American Cultural hub that it is today, continues the work to keep its soul intact.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Omari Allen is a contributor for Thrillist.

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