Reaping the rewards of a Renaissance: Black business owners in Inglewood keep doors open in spite of city’s gentrification

8 mins read

Entrepreneurs in one of the few Black business enclaves in Los Angeles remain optimistic as an NFL sports stadium finishes construction, and the possible headquarters of NBA’s LA Clippers loom, Inglewood’s development preps for what they say is a renaissance.

Like most mornings in Downtown Inglewood, a modest-sized municipality in Los Angeles County, fog rolls in just before dusk then slowly dissipates before noon. At 8:30 a.m. the haze is thick, but activity brews on Market Street, the main thoroughfare cutting through Downtown Inglewood’s commercial district.

Marisa Johnson arrives to open La Create Space, a branding and marketing consulting business, production rental house and posh coworking facility that rents out meeting rooms, private offices and shared open working quarters. Johnson and her husband, Terrell, moved to Los Angeles after working, meeting and marrying in northern California.

Johnson, pregnant with their daughter, decided to opt out of returning to corporate so she reignited her marketing expertise into a creative venture; thus La Create came into being. “We kind of wanted to take the model that we were used to up in the Bay Area, of having places to work when you’re either an entrepreneur or a freelancer and just create a creative environment,” said Johnson.

Not far from Johnson, baristas at Sip and Sonder ground Bay Area coffee in an expansive cafe that also serves as a production studio. Chefs and line cooks at, Stuff I Eat, prep for the lunch crowd. Even, Cherish Riggs and her husband of Original Wings N’ Things, chop broccoli and season chicken to drop in a specially-seasoned batter. “My father had a location in Los Angeles, but I chose to open up in Inglewood because there is a community that will support,” explained Riggs between seasonings.

Like these brick and mortars, shops owned by Black millennials and Generation Xers dot downtown, but they aren’t anything like your average mom-and-pop market. A fusion of tech, art, innovation and hustle, they bring a different energy to a community where homeowners are mostly Black baby boomers now retired.

Says Johnson,“The average [member] grew up here, they left for college and now they’re back. And they’re either trying to aspire to create something of their own or they’re working their day job and then they’re creative and night and just need a place to produce. ”

Ensconced in shops half closed and some barely opened on the strip, they make up the last, cohesive and concentrated areas of Black business owners in one of the few remaining Black enclaves in the county. Now they sit and wait for the gold rush said to come with the rapid changes that the City of Inglewood called a “renaissance.”

Mama Sunshine of Mama Sunshine Treasures has been waiting for eleven years. “I’m tired of this same old story of how Black people are getting pushed out,” told Mama Sunshine. “That’s not accurate. There are plenty of businesses around here, they’re just not getting acknowledged. And, there are a lot coming here and they’re still here.”

A muralist who has lived in Ghana, Montgomery and Atlanta says that the city supports certain types of businesses in the transitions. “Inglewood has a lot of uniform shops and hair salons. You’re not going to get a [business] license if you are trying to open up that type of business,” she explained. “They’re looking for a cultural type of people and artists.”

Mama Sunshine describes Inglewood as a Harlem or Atlanta with a vibrant aesthetic housing burgeoning Black business. “Inglewood has a vibe, and a strong Black presence. They want to make sure that when you visit, you can come [downtown] and experience African American culture.”

The ‘Renaissance’

Four major developments mark the significant changes to Inglewood: the Forum, a sports arena turned entertainment venue already renovated; the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers football stadium scheduled to open the summer of 2020; the connection of the Inglewood metro rail to the Crenshaw/LAX metro line currently at the end of its construction; and finally, if passed, the building of the new headquarters for NBA team, the Los Angeles Clippers.

Called, the Inglewood Renaissance, the city has concentrated on creating a comprehensive transportation system comprised of buses and railways that connect visitors to all-points Inglewood. Downtown Inglewood is four miles east of LAX Airport. A niche suburban-urban Los Angeles district between beach cities and South Los Angeles, the once white-only area was a desired destination for middle-class Blacks in the 1970s and early 80s.

Mapping Inglewood Renaissance
The New Downtown Inglewood Development Plan. Map courtesy of City of Inglewood.
Key development sites for the New Downtown Inglewood Development Plan. Map courtesy of City of Inglewood.
Downtown Districts identified in the New Inglewood Development Plan. Map courtesy of City of Inglewood.

Urban planning activist Lark Lo, grew up in Inglewood. She saw first-hand, the types of tactics carried out by developers during the renovation of The Forum. “[Developers] thought that they could move out the Black middle class when they were making plans to gentrify. Or, that they would die,” she said, “They didn’t know that this was the largest concentration of Black homeowners in the country. These people worked in unions and had jobs with benefits, healthcare benefits. So they’re living, long healthy lives.”

With the support of the city’s rebuilding efforts, come criticisms of how Inglewood handles its “renaissance.” Housing prices have skyrocketed in the last five years. So much so, that residents mobilized, Uplift Inglewood Coalition, an organization fighting for rent stabilization and sustainability in housing. Since plans have started for three of the four major projects, Uplift Inglewood Coalition reports that rents have increased in the area to upwards of $1000.

Although reports show that most metro areas experienced a decline in business, Inglewood exhibits a growth in jobs by 1.46 percent, though lagging in median household income.

While many Black Baby Boomers moved away, they also are present as agitators in Inglewood. Coalitions like Uplift Inglewood sued the city for violating the California Surplus Land Act when they said they would give public land to privately-owned LA Clippers to build their new home. However, the legislation dictates that affordable housing should be the priority.

After four years of advocacy, the City of Inglewood adopted legislation earmarking money for affordable housing. Uplift Inglewood released in a statement:

. . . two campaigns spearheaded by the Uplift Inglewood Coalition resulted in two major pronouncements when Inglewood’s Mayor proposed lowering the City’s permanent annual rent cap to 3% and the Clippers announced a proposal for a $100 million investment in the Inglewood community, of which $75 million will be invested in affordable housing. 

Though this is a victory, Uplift Inglewood is not sure of the follow through. 

“In the midst of booming development, skyrocketing rents and an acute shortage of affordable housing, today’s victories show that development without displacement is possible,” said Uplift Inglewood Coalition member, Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza.

Scorza went on. “We are encouraged that both the City of Inglewood and the Clippers appear to be hearing our message, recognizing the importance of housing affordability, and have taken this important step toward addressing our community’s concerns. Our efforts don’t stop here. We will continue to hold them accountable to the Inglewood community.”

Adding to those sentiments, Katie Mckeon, an attorney with the public interest law firm Public Counsel that represents Uplift Inglewood, reminded, “Unfortunately, the Coalition has seen promises broken before. While we are excited by the Clipper’s announcement, at this point, it’s still just a proposal. The plan must be backed by a real commitment to community-centered development for and by the people of Inglewood and enforceable agreements. Until then, we will continue our pursuit of justice and equitable development, and demand that the City abides by all affordable housing laws and protects all of its residents from displacement.”

‘Los Angeles has to grow’

Meanwhile, shop owners like Mama Sunshine says that regardless of the dramatic shifts in rents and demographics, it is a matter of adjusting to the changes. 

“This is LA County. Los Angeles has to grow,” she emphasized. “Your mind has to elevate. When you’re in business like me, you see things differently. I don’t want the Brim [blood gang] shooting and fighting outside my door anymore. I welcome the change. Do you know they just installed credit card meters, in 2019? People want the same, but things change, so, its either you get it or you don’t.”

Johnson, who moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area with her husband said the City’s support of her venture provided a needed reinforcement. “Educating ourselves before we came here was super key, and understanding what was here and what wasn’t here was super important,” described Johnson.

She continued, “Building partnerships with people in the community. Being locked into the city. The [City of Inglewood] Chambers have been really good at supporting us. Sending people over to us. Encouraging us, [telling us to] “hang in there” so those two things were super important – strong partnerships and knowing what’s going on in the city.”

While her mother-in-law is not far, the Johnsons had to find a home outside of Inglewood with single-famili units going for $1 million dollars. “My mother-in-law wants to sell her house, I’m like ‘don’t sell, stay.’”

Nonetheless, Johnson remains “optimistic” that developments will draw more customers to her coworking space. She said, “That stadium is not going to stop for us. My responsibility is to encourage growth and development. While I can still pay the rent, is try to encourage someone else to start their business.”

On the other hand, the city, while rooting for the smaller, niche ventures, just announced that at the new football arena will be the “future site of a whole neighborhood with retail, restaurants, offices, housing, and hotel rooms.

According to the City of Inglewood’s press release, the first tenants are a cineplex, a fitness gym, and a beer garden. Ironically, months before, La Create helped, Teo Hunter and Beny Ashburn of Crown & Hops, create promotional materials for a crowd-funding campaign vying to be the be the first black-owned brewery in Inglewood. Though they raised over $70 thousand, still they search for a building to lease in Inglewood. Regardless of the set back, Hunter and Ashburn have been on a local mission to get the word out to garner more support.

Meanwhile, Mama Sunshine concentrates on keeping her doors open and customers satisfied. “When you come here, you experience a different type of Black business. For one, my customer service is five-star. And, you get to shop at a store highlighting African American culture. Before, the hype Mama Sunshine’s was here. All I have to say is for those who are complaining, ‘Get your ass up and do something about it.’”

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers news, diaspora and oversees the Ark Weekender.

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