If a Black voice rises in a white neighborhood, does it make a sound?

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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I did not want to move here eight years ago. It was my parents, visiting me from Chicago, who fell in love with my quaint Los Angeles town with its walkable business district. Here, they saw a clean, safe, and, what we once thought, liberal neighborhood.

Shortly after my family settled in, LA’s homeless population skyrocketed. Seeing a lack of resolve, ingenuity, or respect for the issue, I decided to run for neighborhood council, and won.

Why We Wrote This

While many Black Americans struggle with hopelessness, columnist Natasha Lewin urges hope, because ”who wants to live in a world where change cannot be fathomed?”

My hopes of leading my Hollywood-adjacent community to make LA history by becoming the first “woke” neighborhood to build supportive housing for homeless families came crashing down in the face of NIMBY-ism. I did not seek reelection.

Fast forward not too many years later, and my community – and all of America – is at another impasse. Now I’m fighting new NIMBY-isms ranging from signs declaring “all lives matter” to annoyed smirks and disgusted body language during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

I’ve thought about uprooting myself but I still believe change is possible. I can still hear the distant sounds of progress – even if so many don’t.

In the vast landscape that is Greater Los Angeles, somewhere nestled between the former John Birch Society recruiting ground of Huntington Beach and the conservative cop-land of Simi Valley, lies my neighborhood. During the late 1930s, when most parts of Los Angeles were being redlined for Latino, Black, and Jewish Americans, my community was populated by legendary actors Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. 

Ronald and Nancy Reagan hosted their wedding reception here. A man-made lake – inaccessible to the public – hides behind single-family homes big enough to fit two, sometimes three, families spaciously. A private golf course butts up against us. A local weatherman is our honorary mayor.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported a 72%-plus white population in my community. Which, as they put it, was “high for the county.” Twelve years later, we are still an overwhelming majority-white town. But there are also many Black residents. I know, because I am one of them.

Why We Wrote This

While many Black Americans struggle with hopelessness, columnist Natasha Lewin urges hope, because ”who wants to live in a world where change cannot be fathomed?”

When I first moved to the neighborhood eight years ago, I did not want to live here. I craved the diversity and beaches of LA’s Westside. It was my parents, visiting from my hometown outside Chicago, who fell in love with this place and its quaint, walkable business district. At the time, this community was removed from the tent and makeshift-shelter population surrounding the Venice bungalow I wanted. Here, they saw a clean, safe, and, what we once thought, liberal neighborhood. 

Shortly after I settled in, LA’s homeless population skyrocketed. As the numbers of homeless people rose, so did the population of Black folks on the street. In 2019, Skid Row, home to one of the largest homeless encampments in the nation, had the unintentional honor of becoming one of the top 10 Blackest neighborhoods in LA with a racial makeup of almost 60% African American.

Around this time, I received a newsletter from my neighborhood council advertising a town meeting regarding the hotly debated topic of homelessness. I was the only Black person in attendance – including those seated on the elected neighborhood council.

The public discussion quickly turned ugly. One neighbor demanded to know how Beverly Hills – a municipality separate from LA – was so successful in keeping homeless people out. Another inquired if our community could, too, hire private security companies or bus homeless individuals away. Seeing a lack of resolve, ingenuity, or respect for the issue from members of the community and its representatives I decided to run for election myself. 

After I was seated on my neighborhood council, I hit the ground running. I became a homeless liaison to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, campaigned for affordable housing, and advocated for Skid Row in their fight for neighborhood council status (they lost twice). To further highlight the disparity for my neighbors, I fought for our community to host our own Homeless Count. I hosted a town hall with LA activists, politicians, and policymakers on why supportive housing in our area was crucial. 

The way I romanticized it, my Hollywood-adjacent community could make LA history by becoming the first “woke” neighborhood to build supportive housing for homeless families. Unfortunately, that all came crashing down when I learned one very hard lesson: Not only does NIMBY-ism exist, but “Hollywood adjacent” does not mean progressive – or inclusionary.  

As of 2020, there are more than 66,000 displaced people living in Los Angeles County, and 21,509 of those people are Black. One third of those experiencing homelessness are Black in a county where only 8% of residents are Black. The data is soul crushing. Ninety years later and redlining is still coursing through LA veins. I did not seek reelection.

Fast forward not too many years later, and now my community – and all of America – is at another impasse, this time regarding Black lives specifically. Now I’m fighting a new NIMBY-ism as a beloved local business has erected a large, vague sign alluding to all lives mattering. Our newly seated neighborhood council newsletter has no mention of Black lives or our protests – even though some marches are only a few blocks away. The latest issue of our local magazine not only features no Black people in its roundup of neighbors adjusting to quarantine, but, as of today, its website’s homepage hosts more dog photos than it does Black faces.

While everyone from my car dealership to my gym and yoga studio have issued statements affirming the importance of Black lives, I’ve become a thorn in the side of those in charge, writing letters, demanding to be seen in my own community. In response to my neighbors’ silence, two weeks ago I put together a small march down our busy main drag to remind myself that not only do Black lives matter, but we live, work, and spend our money here, too. 

It’s taken years of experience and my own light skin – as the biracial singer Halsey calls it, “white-passing privilege” – to teach me how to read people. During our peaceful protest, I could not help but notice the annoyed smirks, disgusted body language, and lack of eye contact from many of my white neighbors as they assessed our potential threat to their comfortable existence. Their fear felt like a mirror reflection of my own and my parents’, who were convinced I would be killed by an enraged white supremacist or angry LAPD officer upset with our nonviolent protest. 

I was born to a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a Black descendant of one of the first farms settled by freed slaves in America. After fleeing Europe and serving in the U.S. Army, my father worked his way up the since-dissolved Immigration and Naturalization Service, helping, instead of imprisoning, immigrants and refugees, like he himself once was. My mother ran her own business plus her family farm. There is a reason I was created from these two people. I do not take my gifts of being both Black and Jewish in vain. 

My folks’ concern is more than irrational fear – it’s rooted in historical facts. And so I walked my sidewalks on edge, awaiting the worst possible scenario. An Asian friend asked why I don’t move to a Black neighborhood. (She, herself, lives in an “Asian” hood, walking the walk.) I’ve thought about uprooting myself, but my problem is, I still believe change is possible. So, for now, I write my letters and stake my roots. I can still hear the distant sounds of progress – even if so many don’t.

Natasha Lewin is a former LA elected official and homeless liaison to Mayor Eric Garcetti. She’s an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, and is an author and New York Times bestselling ghostwriter. Since she has no social media, you can only follow her down the street as she marches. She resides in Los Angeles. 

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