Black Design, LA Style

At first, there was utter silence.

Then, Ron Finley, South LA’s own guerrilla gardener, Ted Talk expert and leader of an urban greening movement broke the hush:

“That is some dope sh*t!” Finley shouted.

And with those words, the room exploded into applause and listeners rose to give architects Zena Howard, Gabrielle Bullock, Kenneth Luker and the Perkins + Will design team a standing ovation.

Perkins and Will had truly come up with an extraordinary design for Destination Crenshaw, and Finley was right. It was and is dope.

African Star Grass (left) and rendering of Destination Crenshaw’s Star sun shades (right).

They had taken the Giant Star Grass, a plant native to the African continent that was used by our ancestors as bedding on slave ships, as the basis for shade structures that will be Destination Crenshaw’s signature design. The grass, like the people who carried it with the, took root everywhere our ancestors landed. And it flourished, even in strange soils.

The applause was hard won. For two years, the team, led by rock star architects Gabrielle Bullock and Zena Howard, met quarterly with Black people who lived, worked and grew up in the Crenshaw District. Before designing for Destination Crenshaw, they took time to know the story of Black Los Angeles.. They listened to stories of family migrations from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. They heard about putting down roots and of having those roots ripped up by so-called urban renewal projects or by new highways like the Santa Monica freeway, which was designed to tear through Sugar HIll, South LA’s wealthiest Black neighborhood. They listened to stories of art and jazz and Soul Train dancers. Residents spoke of the hopeful planting of southern Magnolias by their grandparents and their present-day grief after hundreds of Canary Pines along Crenshaw Boulevard were torn down to make way — first for the space shuttle Endeavour, and then for the Crenshaw/LAX train.

The shade structures, based on the African Giant Star, are designed to serve as the backdrop to the 100 murals and statues, landscaping and other elements that will anchor the 10 community spaces along Destination Crenshaw’s 1.3-mile route. But they also stand alone as visual symbols of beauty and endurance for the entire African Diaspora — and especially the part of it that took root and formed a community here in Los Angeles.