What the new “Obama Boulevard” really means for my neighborhood

The L.A. City Council unanimously voted to re-name a road in my area. It got me thinking.

October 03, 2017
What the new “Obama Boulevard” really means for my neighborhood

Though I was born in Atlanta, I grew up in majority white suburbs of Dallas and Ft. Lauderdale. My parents, who were first-generation college students, have always been adamant about schooling, often reminding me that education affords access to resources. Now, thanks in part to the mostly white private institution I attended, as well as my work in the media and marketing industries, I have a pipeline of access to accumulate wealth. But the ways in which I've been taught to succeed within capitalism have often left me feeling alienated from black community. It fills me with a discomfort, and a sense that I’m leaving certain folks behind. Relatability can sometimes feel like a fence. Do you choose to stand on one side or the other?

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As an effort to stay rooted in a community of people who look like me, I chose to make a home on the southside of Los Angeles, about 15 minutes north of the brand-new L.A. Rams stadium in Inglewood, in a neighborhood called Baldwin Village. The area, first developed in the 1940s, is characterized by its post-war style apartment buildings and tropical foliage. Beginning in the ’70s, the neighborhood was intensely affected by the addiction, poverty, and incarceration that accompanied the Reagan-era drug epidemic. Now primarily a black and Latinx family neighborhood, its southern border is flanked by “The Dons,” an affluent, topographically elevated community with big houses and quiet cul de sacs.

In Baldwin Village, my quest to find a place for myself in black community has been successful in blissfully simple ways: from getting Jamaican patties from Simply Wholesome on Slauson, to seeing black movies like Get Out with majorly black audiences at Rave Cinemas, to going on hikes in Kenneth Hahn State Park, surrounded by people of color. These are opportunities to interact with multiple generations of black folks, all of us displaying forms of blackness that exist outside of the roles we fill when we’re the minority in a space. Here, I see black families of varying socioeconomic status. I see black business owners, black medical professionals. Even my mail person is black. Unlike in the suburbs of my childhood, this is the standard.

“I find solace in being surrounded by other black people. But what happens when these lines of access come home with me at night?”

That said, the way in which my own presence has impacted the neighborhood is important to acknowledge. I’m personally responsible for progressing gentrification in Baldwin Village — I can feel it every morning, when I walk out the door and drive to Santa Monica for a paycheck. Though I find solace in being surrounded by other black people, what happens when these lines of access come home with me at night?

On June 28th, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to change the name of Rodeo Road, a thoroughfare in South Los Angeles, to “Obama Boulevard The change was proposed by 10th District Councilmember, Herb J. Wasson Jr., who also started an online petition to reinforce community support in favor of the new name. Renaming is part of a recurrent conversation that happens as areas are redeveloped — and sometimes, unfortunately — reclaimed by new populations. It’s certainly not the first proposed name change in the area: before 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was called Santa Barbara Avenue, and in 1992, in an attempt to disassociate the area from the images shown in the L.A. Riots news circuit, South Central was officially dubbed South Los Angeles (the original name is still used colloquially). More recently, a 2003 proposal to rename Crenshaw Boulevard after L.A.’s first black mayor, Tom Bradley, was strongly rejected by community members who wanted to preserve the historical epithet.

On the contrary, reception of the Obama Boulevard name change has generally been positive. One of Obama’s first campaign rallies in 2007 was held at Rancho Cienega Park, on that very road. The area also already has several streets named after U.S. presidents. Additionally, many residents seem to agree that Rodeo Road will never receive proper recognition while existing in the shadow of Beverly Hills’ famed Rodeo Drive.

Still, the name is not without its detractors. A common critique suggests that establishing Obama Boulevard in a black neighborhood is predictable, and that the president deserves to replace a major thoroughfare, like La Brea or Sepulveda. This seems to be happening in other parts of California, as well as in other states. In May, a stretch of Freeway 134 near Occidental College in L.A. got approval to be renamed after our 44th President. Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Florida all have streets that bear Obama’s name; the earliest dates back to 2009.

While the name substitution is fitting as Obama truly represents “racial progress” in the limited scope of public office, it also brings up some timely thoughts around Obama as a trope of black relatability — the idea that a black person should aspire to achieve a certain proximity to whiteness. It’s a concept reinforced by institutions and the media alike, with the presumed goal of molding blackness into something more accessible for white people. But black relatability is deeply rooted in anti-blackness; without relatable traits, black people are often perceived as untrustworthy, dangerous, less than.

White liberals love Barack Obama almost as much as they love selectively quoting Martin Luther King Jr. — not only did Obama appeal to white voters, he sometimes kept people’s attention regardless of whether or not they were even interested in politics. Major media sources dissected his policies and speeches, while others pondered his thoughts on hip-hop and sneakers. He was like any other black person. The difference was that Americans who are uncomfortable with blackness didn’t have to leave the safety of their living rooms to connect with him. I worry that “Obama Boulevard” is destined to offer a similar sense of familiarity and fabricated security to L.A. residents who’ve never thought about what existed south of I-10.

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Recently, a white peer texted me to let me know he found a new apartment — right around the corner from mine. Though I’ve known this person for years, once he moved to Los Angeles, I began to feel at odds with his personal investment in black culture. There’s no good way to say it — he’s infatuated with blackness. I thought about his music collection, and about how conversations about hip-hop culture, or really anything black in the media, were pivotal to the progression of our friendship. I thought about how all of his friends that I’ve met are black women. When I pointed this last point out, his response — “Yeah, I have noticed that I guess.” — put a knot in my stomach and a worm in my brain. I ultimately never responded to the text announcing his move. What struck me were the ways in which his choice of location could be attributed to my influence. What if I had never invited him over so he could see how much space I have, had never commented on how affordable it is, or talked about how great my neighbors are?

“I worry that ’Obama Boulevard’ is destined to offer a sense of familiarity and fabricated security to L.A. residents who’ve never thought about what existed south of I-10.”

Thinking about the way non-black people love Obama yet falter when it comes to loving black people who are less accessible to them makes me fearful of falling into this role of the “relatable black friend.” I am uninterested in being a vessel through which people access black spaces. While I’m still figuring out how that should impact the ways that I strive for success, or where I lay my head at night, it feels important to consider. We all have responsibilities to community. Those of us who are bridges between worlds must recognize the power we have, but also be cautious of the ease with which we can contribute to changing it.

What the new “Obama Boulevard” really means for my neighborhood