The Father of Leimert Park, or the Octopus


Caldwell at a community meeting at Leimert Park | Sinduja Rangarajan

Ben Caldwell stopped in the middle of 43rd Street in Leimert Park, bent down, lunged forward, clicked a photograph and disappeared into the crowded street within seconds.

Something on the other side of the road had caught his attention.

This article was also published on KCET Departuresan online documentary series mapping LA neighborhoods through interactive portraits.

Perhaps it was the colorful quilted skirts swaying in the breeze in a makeshift clothing store, one of the many stands set up during Leimert Park’s monthly art walk. Perhaps it was the kids playing jump rope across the street. Or maybe it was one of the drummers tapping furiously in the drum circle by the fountain.

Caldwell never leaves home without his Canon DSLR camera, whether he’s going to a community meeting, a high-end innovation event at a private school or simply strolling across the familiar Leimert Park streets.

 “He documents everything, knowing things will have more value in the future,” said his daughter, Dara Marama Caldwell-Ross. “The value is not just monetary, it’s symbolic.”

Caldwell captures the world around him from behind the camera, but moves so quickly and quietly that he’s almost invisible. His customary faded black t-shirt and loose jeans don’t help him stand out either. But this low-profile artist is the tour de force of Leimert Park, a constant in this ever-changing community.

“He won’t like it if I say this, but he is like the father of Leimert Park,” said Maria Elena Cruz, an artist and teacher.

He calls himself an “octopus” with every tentacle working on a different assignment. In the last 33 years, he’s been a filmmaker, entrepreneur, ethnographer, documentarian, educator and community activist.  [Read more…]

Leimert Park Art Walk: Audio slideshow

Leimert Park art walk in March | Intersections

Leimert Park art walk in March | Intersections

Intersections staff members took a trip to the Leimert Park Art Walk on a blustery Sunday last month for a lively afternoon of music, art and conversation. Dozens of people were drumming and dancing, shopping and eating, and of course, checking out all kinds of art — like the special “Pop Up Plaza” that closed off a stretch of 43rd Place in front of the Vision Theater. Created by USC’s “Tactical Media” class in collaboration with Kaos Network and the Leimert Park Phone Company, the plaza featured five interactive art installations: a re-imagined phone booth, a spray-painted newspaper distribution box, a community garden planter, a magnetic poetry display and a bench-turned-drum machine.

Check out some of the sights and sounds in our audio slideshow with commentary by Kaos Network’s Ben Caldwell, musician Steve Billionaird, and USC’s “Tactical Media” professor Francois Bar. (Also visit our Flickr page to view more than 150 photos from the event.)

Caldwell and Bar are helping to develop a “People Street” proposal for Leimert Park that would create a permanent “Pop Up Plaza” at 43rd Place.

See also: Leimert Park envisions the neighborhood in 2020

The next Leimert Park Art Walk will be Sunday, April 27.

Credits: Stephanie Monte, Daina Beth Solomon, Sinduja Rangrajan, Olga Grigoryants and Willa Seidenberg.


Click to discover more from Leimert Park’s third renaissance.


Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A.

Leimert Park envisions the neighborhood in 2020

Brenda Shockley of Community Build addresses the audience| Photo credit: Sinduja Rangarajan

Brenda Shockley of Community Build addresses the audience. | Sinduja Rangarajan

Community members and leaders share the same bold vision for Leimert Park: By the time the Crenshaw/LAX Metro line links Leimert Park with Inglewood, the Los Angeles International Airport and other parts of the city six years from now, they envision their South Los Angeles neighborhood evolving into a tourist destination that showcases African-American arts and culture.

More than 150 people — a mix of architects, urban planners, activists, artists, bankers, realtors, lawmakers and local residents — began assembling as early as 8 a.m. Saturday at the historic Vision Theatre to discuss what they could do to shape the future of Leimert Park.

Last year the Metro Board approved to construction of a Leimert Park Village station on the Crenshaw/LAX Metro line. Since then, property owners reportedly have been bumping up real estate prices and forcing long-time commercial tenants out of business. Eviction notices sent to the iconic World Stage Theater by a real estate company in November prompted the neighborhood to come together to preserve this African-American cultural hub.

“Our property is going to have a lot more value than it does today,” said Roland Wiley, a community organizer and owner of the architectural and urban planning firm RAW International . “A lot more people will be interested in living where you live. A lot more people will be happy if you can’t pay your mortgage anymore and you gotta sell.” [Read more…]

Leimert Park Phone Company debuts reinvented pay phones

Pay phone protoype

Pay phone protoype. | Stephanie Monte

At the forefront of remixed technology, transmedia, and community storytelling, the Leimert Park Phone Company seeks to create new forms of civic engagement simply by re-purposing old pay phones.

Leimert Park glimpsed the future Saturday outside the historic Vision Theatre at the unveiling of the first reinvented phone.

The fire-engine red prototype is equipped with a microphone, loud speaker, tablet device and electrical outlets. The public was invited to pick up the receiver and share as well as hear stories about the history and culture of Leimert Park.

To project participant Ben Caldwell, director of media arts organization KAOS Network, the old objects have potential.

“Discarded pay phones are portals for community storytelling and to preserve our history,” he said. KAOS Network has been a community staple for more than 30 years helping develop local artists develop multi-media and design skills.

Caldwell is one of a group of Leimert Park community members, artists and musicians who have worked with 30 USC students and faculty on the project since 2012. It began with a series of workshops geared for brainstorming and rapid-prototyping – “hacking” the pay phone to find ways the device could be programmed to record sound or create its own WiFi network.

François Bar, a USC Communication professor, helped acquire the phones. He also posed a key question: “How do you change the objects that are on the sidewalk so they can interact with the people that live there?” Leimert Park’s unique street life would offer an ideal opportunity for experimentation, he decided.

“Many people live outside, there’s a lot of interaction — life from the sidewalk that’s very different from other parts of this city,” said Bar.

Art work for the Leimert Park Phone Company

Art work for the Leimert Park Phone Company. | Stephanie Monte

Leimert Park has been a key artistic and cultural hub for L.A.’s African-American community. Residents and business owners have recently begun to worry that that developers will drive them out by buying property and blasting up the rent, now that a Metro Line is slated for a Leimert Park station.

Some say a few old-fashioned pay phones could be just the thing to help stimulate business within the community as well as generate civic engagement.

Pick up the receiver and you’ll hear: “Press ‘one’ to hear a story about Leimert Park. Press ‘two’ to leave a story. Press ‘three’ to hear the history. Press ‘four’ to hear the music of Leimert Park.”

The project, still in its soft-launch, operates with a small computer called “Raspberry Pi,” which uses an ARM processor, runs Linux and costs about $35. Programmers said it’s ideal for embedding in a pay phone because it’s cheap, flexible and can detect and send voltage changes.

Electrical engineer Wesley Groves made the two outlets encased in flexible plastic tubing that let users plug in USB cables such as phone chargers. He said the pay phone was designed to look attractive.

“As you’re walking down the street and you look at this, your eyes begin to communicate with the object… Then you’ll walk over to it, maybe interact with it, and more people will come,” said Groves. “It creates its’ own communication field.”

His wife Collette Foster Groves, who lives in nearby Ladera Heights, said the phone plays with innovation and technology in mystical, magical ways.

“It’s great to see such art and technology fused together, recycled and repurposed especially for a historical function,” she said. “They should call it the smart phone because of all the ways it can be used.”

Historic Visions Theatre in Leimert Park

The historic Visions Theatre in Leimert Park. | Stephanie Monte

Attendee Janice Villarosa also supported the idea of making art “instead of throwing something out,” and said she thinks learning about Leimert Park’s history will “build more community.”

Andrea James, a frequent Leimert Park visitor, said this kind of project is long overdue to help people understand the neighborhood’s history and struggle.

“This is really the last area that people of Black culture can call their own in the city of Los Angeles,” said James.

For now, the prototype phone is too fragile to be left on the sidewalk. But the Leimert Park Phone Company says it’s planning a permanent installation by January, perhaps with the help of local business owners.

For more, visit

The Vision Theatre in Leimert Park. View larger map.


Click to discover more from Leimert Park’s third renaissance.


Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A.

Jazz and hip-hop seek compromise in Leimert Park

The Regency West Supper Club is a mainstay in old Leimert Park. Its shimmering gold napkins, thick scarlet carpet and flickering tea candles illuminate decades of famous visitors, which earned the neighborhood national renown in the 1960s and 70s for its jazz, blues and African art traditions.

These customs still thrive in iconic institutions like blues bar Maverick’s Flat and arts consortium The World Stage. And the Supper Club still hosts the Living Legends Jazz Series, which brings jazz’s elders back to Leimert Park every summer. The next show will take place Aug. 30. image

But the venue on 43rd Street only tells half the neighborhood’s story. Leimert Park’s new generation, now in its early 20s, includes rappers and Twitter accounts. Storeowners say teenagers and 20-somethings are absent from Dengan Boulevard on weekday afternoons, but they flood the town center on Thursday nights for hip-hop open mic Project Blowed and on Sunday mornings for the community’s monthly Art Walk.

If the jazz generation will let them, then these young musicians are ready to make Leimert Park their own.

“I’m one of those people that actually want to see Leimert Park… get renovated, if you will,” said Jamaal Wilson, a Leimert Park native who released his first rap album, The Cool Table, in March. Wilson is a 21-year-old junior studying psychology at the University of California at Merced. “I want to see it come up with the times and kind of embrace the hip-hop community a little bit more and just get a bit more new and current.”

Changes in Communication

Community Build tried to implement one of those changes in January. Its weekly community meetings considered a proposition for public Wi-Fi access in Leimert Park Village, where historic shops line Dengan Boulevard and a small fountain gurgles in the center of the park.

Community Build reviewed the suggestion for a few weeks, but has tabled it indefinitely.

“If Wi-Fi is something they want, it’s easy for them to get,” said Eddie North-Hager, who founded the neighborhood’s online forum, Leimert Park Beat. “If businesses think it’s worth the money, I bet they’d do it. But if you’re shopping for clothes or a hat or gifts at Zambezi [Bazaar], who’s going to need Wi-Fi?”

North-Hager estimates that 75 to 85 percent of Leimert Park residents at least have an email address. And Leimert Park Beat has 1,475 registered users – more than 10 percent of the neighborhood’s population, according to the L.A. Times’ Data Desk.

But most of Dengan’s famous shops haven’t entered online conversation. Zambezi Bazaar, for example, doesn’t have a website – just a Facebook page it updates about once a month. Eso Won Books, which does have a website, started posting on its Twitter account regularly at the end of February.

imageDrummer Al Williams, one of the Living Legends Linda Morgan (second from right) celebrated in April

The jazz community is also largely offline. When Linda Morgan, 50, assembled the first Living Legends Jazz Series in 2010, she featured 11 artists at four concerts. Three of them showed up in Google searches that summer.

“If you’re not using technology, it’s really hard to describe,” said Ben Caldwell, who toes the line of Leimert Park’s generational divide. The 66-year-old founded KAOS Network in 1984 to teach film and music production. Since then, he has been leading teleconferences, burning CDs and spreading videos online before any of those practices were commonplace. But most of his peers are unenthusiastic about technical innovation.

“It can be tough for me, and I like computers,” Caldwell admitted. “But unless you were raised in that [technological] world, you probably won’t use it. And then, the old world dies around you while the new world takes over.”

But Morgan said some of her series’ performers, who she fondly calls “my legends,” reject the changes Caldwell described altogether.

“One of my legends was so outdone with all the photography at a show that she was like, ‘I don’t want to take another picture in my life.’ I can’t allow that to happen,” Morgan said. “This year I have legends like Gerald Wilson, who’s 92. I don’t want them overwhelmed.”

Out of respect for the performers, Morgan tailors her monthly Supper Club shows to their wishes. But to reach young audiences, Morgan also makes all her legends Facebook fan pages and works with their families to secure copyrights for their music. If families are unable or uninterested, she does the work herself – meaning she still manages 22 Facebook pages and owns dozens of domain names.

This year Morgan turned the project into a nonprofit. Eventually, she wants to televise the concert series and open a museum.

“They’ve given so much to the music that we need to make sure that their legacies continue – and not only that they continue, but that they’re protected, promoted and preserved,” Morgan said. “That’s the only way the next generation of hip-hop is ever going to know anything about them.”

“The Newness that is Hip-Hop”

Leimert Park’s median age is 38, and most of Morgan’s audience members are older. “Legends” must be 65 or older to perform in the series. At the same time, though, Morgan wants to hire a young, Internet-literate staff to help her put these records and biographies online. She hopes their work will inspire a whole generation of sign-ups for piano, saxophone and drum lessons.

More than digitizing their parents’ records, however, Wo’se Kofi hopes his peers will fuse jazz traditions with their own. The 24-year-old son of an African dance instructor and African drummer already uses their rhythms in his rap songs.

“The funny thing is, everything in hip-hop comes from that beat, you know? That’s the ancestor. Drums are our ancestors,” Kofi said.

But it’s not only possible for rappers to honor their roots, Kofi said. It’s necessary. At its birth, rap was about cultural pride. Only in recent decades did lyrics become degrading and divisive.

“When people first started rapping, rap had more of a revolutionary aspect, more of a change, more of a substance,” Kofi said. “I feel like the younger generation kind of lost a sense of culture and a sense of togetherness. We just have to find a culture in general, something that we are all unified [in], something that is already in us. We are a revolutionary culture. Or we should be.”

But even if the hip-hop generation embraces their jazz roots, Wilson worries that their elders won’t reciprocate that respect.

“I feel as though they aren’t reaching out to the young hip-hop community. Whenever somebody thinks of Leimert Park, they want them to think it’s the jazz epicenter,” Wilson said. “It’s not really recognized for jazz music anymore and I think that is kind of rubbing them the wrong way, maybe, and they haven’t embraced the newness that is hip-hop.”

Wilson said Leimert Park is garnering some clout among his generation of rappers. Neighborhood native Dom Kennedy played at indie festival South by Southwest in 2011 and has appeared on songs with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. People know him, Wilson said, so they see Leimert Park as a hip-hop epicenter – a young, rapidly expanding one.

“You can almost see and hear the difference between artists that come from the Leimert Park area,” Kofi said. “They’ve been around the cultural aspect of Leimert Park, which was African ancestors, the African culture, people dressing in African clothing… People who grew up around that positivity continued to keep the positive in their lyrics.”

Compromise and Adaptation

Morgan wants to preserve the jazz culture that made the neighborhood famous two generations ago. She and Kofi agree that culture involves more than music, though – it’s about family ties, visual art and a common neighborhood experience, like rebuilding after the riots in April 1992.

“I want it to grow. I want that area to flourish. It’s culturally rich, especially in jazz,” said Morgan, who also gives Leimert Park historical tours on Art Walk Sundays. “I want to keep that whole society going.”

Wilson was born a few months after the riots ended. He belongs to a different era than the places Morgan points out on her tours. But he and Kofi said their generation wants to take responsibility for the neighborhood’s past as well as its future.

“You have these new kids with the new ideas and the new energy, and you have the older people who have worked their whole lives to try to make this a success and to give it a personality and a character,” North-Hager said. “They’re not always going to agree… [while] passing on the mantle of leadership and responsibility and activism.”

Wilson just isn’t sure Leimert Park’s elders are ready to hand over the reins.

“That’s awesome that they pride themselves on their history, but if you don’t adapt, you run the risk of dying,” Wilson said. “And then you take so much pride in your history that you become history. And Leimert Park is too great of a place to become history.”