LOS ANGELES — Destination Crenshaw moved one step closer to becoming a reality earlier this month, when the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission approved the installation of seven permanent sculptures along the project’s 1.3 mile-long route. In addition to these seven artworks, Destination Crenshaw will include works by over 100 Black artists, making it “the largest commissioning initiative ever undertaken for Black artists” in the United States, according to a press statement.
Launched in 2017, the $100 million initiative aims to redesign a stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard from Vernon to Slauson, a major hub of Los Angeles’s African-American community in South Los Angeles. Spearheaded by Marqueece Harris-Dawson, LA City Councilmember for District 8, it includes a wide range of arts and community leaders among its advisors and stakeholders such as Naima Keith, the vice president of Education and Public Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; gardener and activist Ron Finley; jill moniz, curator and founder of Transformative Arts; and, before his death in 2019, rapper Nipsey Hussle. It has received funding from the city and county, as well as the state of California, and it was recently announced that NBA star DeMar DeRozan would be leading a private fundraising drive. Groundbreaking took place on February 29 2020, and the project is slated to be completed in fall 2022.
Alongside this cultural component, the project will feature over 30,000 feet of sustainable landscape design, and it promises to directly invest in local businesses through its DC Thrive program, which “focuses on skill-building, technical assistance, operations support, and providing access to public and private capital.” The construction project itself aims to economically boost the community, with a pledge to hire 70% of workers locally. The redesign is led by architecture firm Perkins&Will, which previously worked on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
The artists chosen for these initial seven sculptures are Charles Dickson, Melvin Edwards, Maren Hassinger, Artis Lane, Alison Saar, Kehinde Wiley, and Brenna Youngblood, each of whom has lived or worked in South LA at some point during their lives.
The origins of Destination Crenshaw are rooted in community concerns over the predicted impact of the Metro Crenshaw/LAX light rail line that will run through Leimert Park and Inglewood, currently under construction. Despite requests that the line be placed underground, a major stretch down Crenshaw was slated to be “at grade,” meaning it would run right down the middle of the street, alongside cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. Destination Crenshaw was conceived of as “a reparative development project” to counter the feared detrimental effects to the community, both the physical disruption of the street and the potential for gentrification. “Its mission is nothing less than to place a cultural stamp of Blackness on Crenshaw Boulevard,” its website states.
Four of the artworks, by Dickson, Hassinger, Lane, and Wiley, will be installed at the northern end of Destination Crenshaw, in Sankofa Park, named for the symbolic Ghanian bird that flies toward the future while looking towards the past. LA native Dickson, who lives and works in Compton, will contribute “Car Culture,” a trio of figures based on West African Senufo ceremonial objects topped by automotive parts. “An Object of Curiosity, Radiating Love” by Maren Hassinger is a large pink sphere that glows pink when approached. Hassinger grew up in Leimert Park, and began her career alongside fellow multidisciplinary African-American artists in LA like David Hammons and Senga Nengudi.
Both Artis Lane and Kehinde Wiley will reimagine traditional European statuary to reflect the neighborhood’s Black history and community. Lane’s “Emerging First Man” is a larger-than-life Black male figure cast in bronze, representing spiritual rebirth through adversity. Wiley, who grew up in South Central, will contribute an equestrian statue featuring a West African woman riding forward while glancing behind her, in the mode of the Sankofa bird. This can be considered something of a homecoming for Wiley, who was chosen for the Metro Young Artists program as a teen.
At the corridor’s southern end, works by Saar and Youngblood will be located in Welcome Park and I AM Park. Saar’s “Bearing Witness” features two 13-foot tall figures, a man and a woman, facing each other, their towering hairstyles composed from everyday items gathered from local thrift stores, and cast in bronze. Youngblood playfully remixes her sculpture “MIA,” flipping the letters to spell out “I AM,” a simple declaration of human dignity that has its roots in the protest signs of the Civil Rights Movement.
At roughly the route’s midpoint at 54th street, Melvin Edwards’s monumental chain-link steel “Column” references both the cruel legacy of slavery and uplifting strategies of survival based in community and cooperation.
Alongside the artworks’ approval by the Cultural Affairs Commission, Destination Crenshaw announced a commitment of $3 million in grants from the Getty Foundation, bringing the total amount raised to $61.5 million. In an ongoing partnership, the Getty will support youth internships and apprenticeships, develop joint programming through the African American Art History Initiative of the Getty Research Institute, and provide conservation advice on public art through the Getty Conservation Institute.
Despite its stated mission as a bulwark against displacement, Destination Crenshaw has drawn some critics who say it will hasten the gentrification it purports to foil, that it will provide visibility for a community who can no longer afford to live there. It is an argument that Jason W. Foster, the president and chief operating officer of Destination Crenshaw, counters in his statement thanking the Getty for supporting “this community-led project, which we initiated with the conviction that residents of one of the world’s largest and most creative Black neighborhoods deserve to live in a beautiful, green, artistically impressive and economically strong environment.”