Consistent job growth inspired re-imagined Crenshaw business district

imageCalifornia employees and entrepreneurs were heartened by last month’s revelation that December marked a fifth consecutive month of a declining unemployment rate statewide. Los Angeles’ 8th City Council District, one of the poorest in the city, met the news with guarded optimism.

More than 3,200 new jobs were created in the 8th District in 2011, which was the sixth consecutive year of job growth in the area. The 8th District includes the Crenshaw, Hyde Park, Vermont Knolls, North University Park and Baldwin Hills neighborhoods.

“We believe that we’re kind of at the forefront of a transformation here,” said Karim Webb, a local restaurant owner. When it comes to employment, “there’s definitely a positive spin on the story.”

Still, like most of the nation, employment is one of the community’s biggest concerns, said 8th District City Councilman Bernard Parks.

“We send a weekly e-newsletter to 7,000 people every Thursday evening, and the number one item is every job opportunity that we become aware of,” Parks said. “Every time we check the most-reviewed areas, it’s employment opportunities. It’s the number-one question we get asked.”

Since 2006, Parks’ district has added jobs every year. In 2011 alone, restaurants created about 300 positions. Several primary care clinics opened in Crenshaw. And a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Vermont Knolls made public health 2011’s fastest-growing industry.

But because most of the 8th District’s jobs are still in restaurants, retail and services like car repair, income levels haven’t risen in concert with the improving job market.

“We have more people working, but we still have the lowest-paid jobs in the city,” Parks said. “We have people who actually criticize the district, saying that yes, you’re creating jobs, but they’re low-paying.”

imageBut Parks sees these jobs as the gateway to better employment down the road. “Every job is not a career,” he said. “Every job is not a life-long job. You move to another job. You develop.”

Karim Webb opened a Buffalo Wild Wings in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza last year. He hired most of the staff from the Los Angeles Urban League, which helps young minority Angelenos find education and employment. Webb also believes the restaurant addressed a community need.

“It’s a place for people to bring their families, bring their kids after a soccer game or a little league game; a place for families to meet up after work; a place for buddies to meet up after work, have a beer, watch the game. There’s a pocket,” Webb said. “If we can secure that… then people will come. And we’re finding that.”

Webb worried about the community’s crime activity, especially gang problems, before he opened the restaurant. But he said those fears haven’t been validated.

“Demographically, incomes are lower here than among the general population, so that’s somewhat of a challenge,” Webb said. “But we knew there was going to be some aggressive movement toward redevelopment here.”

Edna Boedenave recognizes the neighborhood’s limitations as well. When she opened My Sassie Boutique last month in Crenshaw Square, a plaza on Crenshaw Boulevard between Coliseum and 39th Streets, she set a $20 cap on the price of the shoes, clothing and accessories in her shop.

“It’s something I thought would work here,” Boedenave said. “I like clothes, I love shoes… I think it offers people something they find refreshing. I have items that people want and are affordable.”

What entices customers, though, is not the rack of $19 five-inch heels or the gifts Boedenave offers new guests. Instead, “people say they walk in and it’s like they’re not on Crenshaw,” she said. “They have the feeling that, this is nice, I like the feel of this.”

Webb, however, wants visitors to remember exactly where they are – in fact, he wants Crenshaw Boulevard and Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza to become citywide destinations. “Restaurants and boutiques are just the heralds of a neighborhood beginning to thrive,” he said.

“People that live in Leimert Park, View Park, Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills are going to have every reason… to spend their dollars here. And there will be people from outside this community who want to come here just to spend time and money,” Webb said. “People who get off the freeway and travel south on Crenshaw Boulevard have a lot to look forward to.”

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