By Laura J. Nelson
Obinne Onyeador remembers when the streets of Leimert Park were jumping all night.
Until 4 a.m. and later, the gallery owner would hear saxophones wail from inside Fifth Street Dick’s, where men and women from all over the world played chess, drank coffee and soaked in the culture of one of Los Angeles’s most dynamic arts neighborhoods.
Leimert Park Village still seems a black bohemia, where shopkeepers vend batik earrings, photos of the Obama family and books by black authors, where residents linger over rich coffee and sweet potato pie at the local jazz club. But business has changed.
In the last 10 years, rents have skyrocketed from $700 to $2,000 and above a month, Onyeador said. Many businesses have left. And in 2000, when Fifth Street Dick’s owner Richard Fulton died of throat cancer, much of the area’s culture died with him.
The strip of small, specialty businesses on Degnan Boulevard that vend to a limited clientele is now struggling in the wake of an economy that was particularly hard on African-American disposable income.
“They’re feeling the crunch,” said councilmember Bernard C. Parks, whose district includes Leimert Park. “When the economy is bad, the first things to go are services and people who are discretionary buying and eating.”
Leimert Park is more than 91 percent black – one of the highest percentages in Los Angeles County — and also has one of the highest unemployment rates. More than a third of the area’s residents are below the poverty line.
The gentrification that has turned formerly shabby areas like North Hollywood into hip, artsy destinations has passed Leimert by, and owners in the area have struggled to agree on a direction for local commerce.
To help struggling businesses, the Leimert Park Merchants Association and the strip of businesses along Degnan Boulevard are telling residents to “Buy Black.”
Much like “Recycling Black Dollars,” Buy Black encourages residents to shop at local, Afro-centric, black-owned stores, and keep their money in the community. The campaign’s bookmarks – striped in red, green and white – crop up in gift bags from Zambezi Bazaar and the Eso Wan bookstore across the street.
“It’s about supporting each other to ride this out,” said Jackie Ryan, the co-owner of Zambezi Bazaar. “We’re not bankrupt, but we need more business.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, the sidewalks of Leimert Park Village overflow with molten sunshine, but no footsteps. Bookstores, boutiques and galleries like Onyeador’s leave their doors open, the distant pulse of African tribal music tempting in the breeze and perhaps a passer-by – but only a handful walk past.
“Five years ago, people would pay hundreds of dollars to buy nice art they could hand down to their children,” said Onyeador as he sat outside his gallery African Heretege, a sign reading ‘Big Sale — Everything must go’ in the window. “Now my customers are unemployed. They’ve lost everything.”
The businesses along Degnan Boulevard have an easy relationship with their customers, many of whom are regulars. But a small customer base can only spend so much, Ryan said. To boost business, the area needs a combination of regulars and outside business.
Ryan and Parks, who talk together about the village, think things may be looking up. The area reported a successful Christmas shopping season, and Parks’s district is the only in Los Angeles to report an increase in employment, said Dennis Gleason, his spokesman.
“You have to survive the low points, so part of it is just riding it out,” Parks said. “But you don’t want to go bankrupt while you’re waiting.”
Several changes in the area have brought in more business as well. Parks re-routed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade to end in the village, bringing 8,000 to 10,000 people, and possibly their business. The village hosts a 4th of July jazz and blues festival, a gospel festival in September, and a book fair in June, which all bring money in.
But businesses are afraid that won’t be enough.
“We can’t just bring in people from outside,” Ryan said, as she advised a regular customer on which set of islands-inspired earrings to buy for his wife. “We know our customers in our community don’t have a lot of money, but we want them to spend it here.”