I work at a soul-food restaurant owned by a very attractive black biracial man. The restaurant is located in South Los Angeles, across from what used to be the Magic Johnson Theater, a place once known for shootouts during movie screenings. But, I digress.
It is an upscale “Southern” restaurant where black customers regularly leave a ten-percent tip, or no tip at all. Elderly black women come in groups, laughing at jokes I can’t hear from the host stand; jokes that tickle their spines and make their eyes glisten with a thick nostalgia. I hope to be like these women one day, with friends on canes, some without. I want to be an old woman who still dresses up to go out, laugh, breathe, and order a meal with extra remoulade sauce.
These black women often ask me if the restaurant is black-owned. I say yes and smile, though none of the managerial staff is black.
One day, there is a black man with a dirty backpack walking in circles outside the restaurant. He seems lost, but intent on our parking lot as his found destination. I watch him, thinking of all the lost black men I encounter in Los Angeles, standing in front of 7-11s, restaurants, on corners without jackets or certainty. They look into my eyes but I look away, somewhere else. This man evokes fear in the white supervisor at my restaurant, a fear that prevents her from approaching him. Instead, she decides to gaze at him through our blinds. The white assistant chef enters, confused by this wandering black man in the parking lot. He says he shouldn’t be there because it will scare customers. Or, maybe he is the one who is scared?
We are in South Los Angeles, miles away from what used to be called The Jungle, an area notorious for its surge of violence during the 1990s, and we are worrying about a man with a tattered backpack and a hunger for our parking lot. We are in a food desert, happy to be the only restaurant serving upscale cuisine, while black men with lost souls stand outside of establishments not meant for them.
On a different day, a man comes in and asks if we serve chitlins. I tell him we don’t. He protests, saying you can’t be black if you haven’t eaten chitlins. I tell him I grew up Muslim and never ate pork. He leaves.
There’s a lot of empty land around this area, on Marlton. Tall weeds and rusty gates with signs that declare, “We Will Buy or Sell Your Property In Any Condition.”
Boarded-up stores tell a story of a time past. A time when The Flying Fox Bar brought in women in their Friday-best leather boots and fresh perms.
There’s a lot of land to cover with swanky places like ours, with upscale dining that many cannot afford. There’s a lot of land to cover with folks coming from the west side for a taste of soul food.
One day, an older black man with scattered dreadlocks tells me there are too many white people in the restaurant. I don’t know what this means, but I understand him. This is a “black” business in a predominately black area. But the owner’s mother is Italian. Her tanned complexion and full features might allow her to pass this customer’s test for South LA soul food sensibilities, but maybe not? Maybe he should go to M&M soul food down on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
They don’t serve sweet potatoes at our restaurant. I’ve never really understood southern cuisine without a sweet potato as part of the meal. Yams kept enslaved Africans alive in this country. They’d grow them in their personal plots of land to sustain whole families. Why are there no sweet potatoes on the menu? But there is sweet potato pie, good ol’ sweet potato pie. One elderly black woman tastes it and says it’s the worst sweet potato pie she’s ever had. She offers to come into the kitchen and make some for the restaurant because we obviously need help.
The other day, a customer refused service from a server because he is white. He wanted a black server. The man had come with his wife, or a woman he knew, and she left when it was clear he had no money to pay for his meal. She paid her $15 dollars and then drove off as he ran alongside the car. Upon trying to re-enter the restaurant, he was stopped by our manager. Later, he was seen peeing on the side of the restaurant. When I came into work later that day, a copy of the man’s driver’s license was being passed around the restaurant by staff whom were still whispering about the incident.
“Yeah, and he said Mike couldn’t serve him because he’s white. That’s so messed up. We’re people too,” said the daytime supervisor. I nod and listen, without reaction. But when I get back to the hostess stand, I can’t help but laugh. I can’t help but laugh at a rare reversal of prejudice in South LA. How many black Americans were brutalized at lunch counters, burned with hot coffee, and bit by dogs for trying to eat at American restaurants? As this story made the rounds in the restaurant, I thought it interesting the ways in which the staff reacted to Mike’s suffering. Poor Mike.
Nobody wants to sit with their back to the door. Many black customers express concerns when I seat them this way. They want to see who’s coming in the door. Years ago, it might’ve been someone dangerous, or just some man from the Nation of Islam selling bean pies. Now the developers are moving into Leimert Park with plans to build new hotels, restaurants, and condos.
Two customers ask me if this restaurant will be torn down when the “24-hour community” comes. They want to know if we will be on the bottom or the top of the new Mega City. I have no answer, so I go to the owner, who tells me we’re “staying put.” They smile when I return with that answer, happy that they will still be able to get cornbread and honey butter once Santa Rosalia Drive resembles The Grove.
That night, I go online to read about the new plans for the 24-hour community coming to Crenshaw. It is massive, encompassing plans for a pedestrian-oriented retail village and two million square feet of new commercial space. The Crenshaw Line light rail, which will be completed in 2019, will enable the movement of those who never thought to step foot in South LA, because it was either too dangerous, too far away, or too black. Now, it’s The New Place To Be.
I recently heard a white customer commenting on how clean and well-kept Leimert Park was as she drove through to get to the restaurant. She seemed genuinely surprised, as if Leimert Park was this new creation she discovered, and not a thriving neighborhood inhabited by generations of black residents who pass down property to daughters and nieces.
But what will happen to this restaurant in the midst of this changing landscape? Where it once signaled the communal changes welcomed by most residents—fine dining, an alternative social scene, healthy food options—it now risks being overcome by a more massive change. Will the community it helped revive become drowned out in the sea of redevelopment?
There’s a shooting near the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza when I arrive at work one Sunday night in April. My cousin sends me a text message, and asks if I’m alright. Three people are shot, but the details aren’t disclosed. Hours later, two more people are shot while driving a van down MLK. My manager says it’s all under control, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way he paces through the restaurant. Helicopters occupy the sky as fish are battered and cornbread is heated in our woodfire oven. No one in the restaurant knows what’s going on. My manager shakes his head and says, “This is a good neighborhood, but there’s still some of that left over, unfortunately.”
I remind myself this could happen anywhere.
Just days ago, I saw the neighboring FatBurger had abruptly closed—its building draped in banners for a new “Southern Diner” coming soon. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. And this area has gone without its share for years. Simply Wholesome was one of the only healthy, non-fast food options nearby, while Crenshaw Boulevard, between Exposition and West 39th, has been occupied by empty storefronts for years. Leimert Park, however, operates in its own historic, artistic sphere, with Eso Won bookstore, restaurants, and drum circles on Sunday. A new art gallery, Papillion, and art space, Art + Practice, have recently opened, rebuilding the area’s legacy.
There’s no way to classify all of these changes as one massive takeover. They aren’t. Some people here are active in their community, attend town hall meetings, and many own their own homes. But I wonder, what will Leimert Park look like and feel like next to a large hotel and condo complex? What happens to the many homeless people who call the actual park in Leimert Park their home? Will they be a part of the new vision for the area?
There are fears that Leimert Park and the surrounding Baldwin Hills community are becoming gentrified. They are. I wonder how much of those fears include the role of this restaurant in encouraging a certain outside migration. White people are moving to Baldwin Hills because they can afford the houses there. Beverly Hills and West Hollywood suddenly are now too expensive. There’s vacant land for building, lost black men, elderly black women, white college students who don’t know how to pronounce the word “Leimert,” and even black lesbians who frequent the restaurant quite regularly. There’s revitalization, but just down MLK are rows of rundown apartments and nondescript storefronts where black men and women hang out, scream, run across the street in hair rollers and wife beaters, living.
That division, or chasm between the have and have-nots, will not change because a soul food restaurant made you feel welcome.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay. She has written for Shadow & Act and Bitch Media. Mu’min is the recipient of the 2012 Princess Grace Award for her film, Deluge, a Sundance Institute Screenwriting Fellow, and was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at the 2014 Urbanworld Film Festival, for her upcoming film, Noor. Find her on Twitter @Nijla1.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]