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A Los Angeles Primer: Leimert Park

“So many people wanna cruise on Crenshaw on Sunday,” raps Skee-Lo on his 1995 hit “I Wish”. “Well then, I’mma have to get in my car and go.” He even gives directions: “You know I take the 110 until the 105” — from the relatively venerable Harbor Freeway to the then-brand-new Century Freeway — “get off at Crenshaw, tell my homies, ‘Look alive.'” You can still follow Skee-Lo’s route, but don’t expect to emerge into the very same neighborhood you saw in the music video for “I Wish”. Head north on Crenshaw for about six more miles, though, and there you’ll arrive: Leimert Park, just over one square mile of late-1920s planned community which would become, as LA Weekly music critic Jeff Weiss puts it in a profile of Skee-Lo (who still resides nearby), “the Left Bank of early-90s underground hip-hop.” I’d recommend against doing much cruising, though; since Skee-Lo’s summer days on the charts, sternly official signs have appeared: “NO CRUISING,” they read. Then, in case of ambiguity: “2 TIMES PAST THE SAME POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS IS CRUISING.” Last I went down to Leimert Park on a Sunday, I couldn’t resist passing the same points repeatedly, daring each time not to let six hours elapse. My defiance raised little in the way of police attention.

Then again, I did it on a bicycle, not in the 1964 Impala of Skee-Lo’s underdog longings. But even in a car, I’d find the neighborhood too intriguing to move simply through rather than around, and besides, cycling has precedent there. I seem to recall that Jody, Tyrese Gibson’s feckless 20-year-old father at the center of the Leimert Park-set “Baby Boy”, relied on a bike to get around. Its director, John Singleton, has called Leimert Park “the black Greenwich Village.” He also made “Boyz N the Hood”, a better-known, more heightened cinematic tale of the perils of life in south Los Angeles, but this particular area feels more or less free of the air of menace movies and television have, imitating all the wrong aspects of work like Singleton’s, liberally applied to so much of Los Angeles below Interstate 10. (When Tom Cruise’s visiting assassin has to take out a jazz club owner with a shadowy past in “Collateral”, he does go straight to Leimert Park. That film, however, found its 21st-century noir sensibility by looking back, past the thug years, to what fueled the city’s first wave of noir: the Leimert Park-connected Black Dahlia murder, for instance.) But given both the Left Bank and Greenwich Village comparisons, it makes sense that people almost instinctively use the word “vibrant” to describe the place. I get the sense that when Angelenos who live far from Leimert Park come to it, they come in search of that elusive vibrancy, manifest as it may in music, murals, literature, or shops filled with African collectibles.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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