Envisioning Leimert Park Through a New Vision Theatre

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[dropcap]In[/dropcap] the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park, the Vision Theatre is a focal point. A melange of Spanish Colonial, Mediterranean Revival, and Art Deco architectural styles, it echoes the Los Angeles tradition of the pre-war movie house. The exterior culminates in a 115-foot tower that vertically displays the word “VISION,” as though it’s a shrine to the sense of sight.

The efforts behind the Vision’s facade are no less grandiose: the entry’s elements are the first fruits of a $23.5 million, period-faithful renovation campaign spanning more than 15 years. Led by Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs, the project aims to outfit the Vision, which was constructed in 1931, as a new African-American arts center and a cultural attraction for all of Greater Los Angeles.

The project began in the early 2000s, after the theater’s previous owner, Marla Gibbs, lost it to foreclosure. Gibbs, an actor and singer, had operated the theater as a venue for African-American live performance and workshops. Then-City Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas spearheaded the move to purchase the theater in 1999, with the intention to preserve Gibbs’s mission.

One of the most compelling forces behind the city’s decision was the Vision’s location. In Los Angeles County, the number of African-American residents has decreased consistently over the decades, and Leimert Park is one of its few remaining predominantly black communities, with a black population of approximately 79.6%. What’s more, the neighborhood has been a hub for the contemporary African-American arts scene in Los Angeles since the 1960s — it’s home to a thriving blues and jazz scene and has housed Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Bradford, and director John Singleton — and the preservation of another channel of the arts seemed only natural.

“I think the theater was significant in the sense that Los Angeles has lost a lot of its African-American community,” said James Burks, Director of Special Projects for the Department of Cultural Affairs. “We purchased the building because we didn’t want to see the loss to the community.”

The renovated tower of the Vision Theatre at night (a small fraction of the image is computer generated to show the final result). Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

Beyond reinforcing a sense of community among local residents, the city expects the Vision to draw visitors from much of Los Angeles County and inland cities. The Vision’s appeal is unique; it’s the only active live theater in South Los Angeles, where countless arts venues have been left vacant, converted to offices or churches, or demolished. A major boon, Burks said, is the theater’s proximity to the upcoming Crenshaw/LAX light-rail system, which opens the venue to theatergoers from other cities with light-rail access: Inglewood, Pasadena, Long Beach. Currently under construction, the line will include a station at the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue — a two-minute walk from the Vision.

In light of these upgrades, though, do residents fear rising costs of living? The short answer is yes, always — but it’s more complex than that. Leimert Park is situated near some of the nation’s wealthiest African-American communities per capita (Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, Windsor Hills), and, given its historical intimacy with the arts, the economic draw of the renovation is viewed more as cultural sustenance than as a tear in the neighborhood’s social fabric.

“I think most of the people in Leimert Park don’t have a problem with gentrification, don’t have a problem with people coming in. They do have a problem with change of what is there that is representative of their culture,” Burks said. “I think we’re doing the right thing. People have gotten very comfortable with the space. We don’t have a lot of people pushing back.”

Similarly, local businesses have embraced the renovation. Leimert Park has a high concentration of galleries and art-supply stores; their owners hope the Vision’s potential to attract new, arts-oriented crowds will help them garner customers. Furthermore, the city hopes the Vision will catalyze a shift in the neighborhood’s industrial focus from commercial sales of products to the arts.

Despite a mostly supportive community, the campaign hasn’t been immune to challenges. The city stands about $300,000 short of its funding goal and has grappled with structural and aesthetic demands: updating egress and fire exits, coordinating a land swap with the Department of Transportation to construct a fly loft, consulting with architects and engineers to keep the renovation consistent with 1931 standards.

But these hurdles haven’t stopped the Vision from adopting a steady diet of events across the artistic spectrum. Since 2013, the theater has opened its lobby to the public, hosting theater festivals, concerts, dance and acting classes, improv workshops, and staged readings. Burks is in talks with an extensive list of potential collaborators, from jazz venues to churches to arts groups in South America, in an effort to secure partnerships before the theater’s projected opening in mid-2017.

“It’s showcasing the African-American culture in Leimert Park, and it’s going to diversify the audiences coming,” he said. “It’s going to add to how the city of L.A. looks at other communities: Larchmont, Hollywood, Santa Monica. It’s going to give it the kind of energy those places have as cultural destinations.”

Julianne Tveten

Julianne Tveten

Julianne is a journalist in Los Angeles.