Los Angeles blacks roiled over renaming storied street

Residents of Crenshaw Blvd. say that city hall's proposal disrespects the culture embodied by the road and its name.

In a city crosswired by famous streets - think Sunset or Hollywood Boulevards - Crenshaw isn't a name that comes readily to tourists' tongues. But for Californians, the six-lane strip carries an indelible association of an African-American community noted for a unique amalgam of cuisine, dress, music, social trends, and attitude - not to mention two riots since 1965.

The road has been immortalized in hip-hop verse by Rappers Tupak Shakur and Ice Cube. Actor Denzel Washington won his Oscar for "Training Day," filmed up and down the street. Director John Singleton spotlighted the area in his box-office smash, "Boyz 'N the Hood," with Cuba Gooding Jr., and basketball hall-of-famer Magic Johnson built his eponymous multiplex cinema here.

For residents, the moniker Crenshaw Boulevard represents a way of life. But for some councilors at city hall, the name of South L.A.'s most beloved thoroughfare may be expendable. Late last month, career city councilman Nate Holden tried to punctuate his last days in office by officially changing the name of Crenshaw Boulevard to Tom Bradley Boulevard in honor of the five-term black mayor who died in 1998.

Holden's proposal has caused something of a brouhaha in the metropolitan area. Residents say that the street's name has come to embody the cultural identity of the neighborhood. Altering it, they say, would be an affront to the distinct character of this part of L.A., and a sign, perhaps, that an out-of-touch city hall has little appreciation for the area's uniqueness.

"They should leave the [street] name alone. Tom Bradley never did too much for blacks here anyway," says Brian Muhammad, a lifetime resident hawking newspapers and bean pies outside Louisiana Fried Chicken at the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson. "Twenty thousand jobs left when he came into office."

Resentment of city hall

The argument of the street's name pits residents such as Muhammad against their own city council representatives and is bringing fresh charges that there remains a troubling divide between Los Angeles government leaders and their grass-roots constituents.

"If this idea goes through, you can bet all hell will break loose," says Kolby Ann Walker, who works at the Lucy Florence Coffee House in the heart of Crenshaw. The string of shops outside include African artifacts and clothes, djembe drums, soul food, and a black historical museum. "If you ask 100 people who live and work here what they think, 110 will be against it. They'll take to the streets. They won't stand for this."

A motion blindsided by opposition

The motion was introduced late last month by Holden - who does not represent the Crenshaw district. (The area is not a formal civic entity but does have its own chamber of commerce. It is loosely defined as about 250,000 residents who live in neighborhoods adjacent to the roughly 20-mile-long boulevard.)

But the idea was supported by a recently elected councilman who does represent the area (8th district of L.A.), Bernard Parks, as well as five other council members. Residents are lashing out at Parks - who was fired as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department last year - for being equally out of touch with his constituents as he was with critics of his leadership.

Holden and Parks assumed the measure would receive perfunctory approval on June 25 but, after angry residents had council members' phones ringing off the walls, it ended in a tie vote. When it was to be reconsidered again in special session, Crenshaw residents barraged council computers with e-mails. Then, with the council chambers jammed with protesters, members passed a motion to reconsider the idea in committee.

What's in a name?

Crenshaw Boulevard was named in 1905 when white businessman Charles Crenshaw bought land in the area and, as was customary, filed papers to establish the name. His grandson, 93-year-old Charles Jr., lives in nearby Burbank and says he is opposed to the name change.

Today there are several businesses along the strip which include the Crenshaw name, from Crenshaw Ford and Crenshaw Mall, to carpet stores, carwashes, and dentists. The street snakes south through a half-dozen communities from the Los Angeles' north-south dividing line - Wilshire Boulevard - to the ocean.

There are other famous "black" streets in America, protesters admit, most notably the "Martin Luther King" boulevards in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. But they have become generic monikers, protesters say.

"We feel this street stands out above the others with character, and culture and history," says Najee Ali, chairman of "Save the Shaw," a protest group formed to resist the name change. He points to the museums, theaters, African clothing boutiques, eateries, and music clubs that define the heart of African-American community in Los Angeles.

Monuments to Mayor Bradley's legacy

For the most part, residents say they are not strongly opposed to honoring Bradley with his own street. They just want it to be somewhere else. Most agree the former mayor helped move Los Angeles from a provincial capital to world-class city with skyscrapers, subways, and high-profile sports teams. But they say other places in town - including at the Los Angeles airport International Terminal - have already been named for him.

For his part, Holden, whose final days in office hit more speed bumps than Gladys Knight has Pips, is miffed that his idea is being held up.

"We spent no time naming the library after [former Mayor Richard] Riordan, a building for [former Council President] John Ferraro, or a street for [famed sportscaster] Chick Hearn," said Holden, who was visibly chagrined when the motion to further consider his name change was approved. "Members of this body do what they want to do when they want to do it."

But residents say they are tired of what they claim is top-down governance. At least one councilman says he is sympathetic to such a viewpoint.

"I have worked South Los Angeles and know how disconnected they feel from the city," said Councilman Dennis Zine, a former police official. "However we end up voting on this, we need to send a message that we hear their pleas and cries."

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