Driving up to Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the main landmarks are what you might expect in an average mall: a two story parking structure, a nice-looking movie theatre, and a long building bookended by Sears and Macys.
The plaza has been through a lot since it opened in 1947, including two major renovations in just the last 25 years. Both revamps, however, pale in comparison to the $700 million proposal authorized by the LA city planning commission and expected to be approved by LA city council. That would transform the nondescript mall into a retail mecca.
“People are always a little skeptical of change and they equate that with fear,” said Shoneji Robison, co-owner of Southern Girl Desserts. “It’s just they’re afraid of something new happening. But once it actually happens, it’s here, I think a lot of people will start to see the benefits of those changes and welcome it.”
Robison’s cupcake store and bakery has a prime location in the plaza, just inside one of the main entrances. The chandelier-lit bakery has a glass case full of brightly colored temptations, with flavors like vanilla with buttercream, sweet potato and Hennessy and Coke.
“Baking was always a passion, something that we knew how to do, a skill that we had,” Robison said. “Both myself and my business partner being from the South, baking is just a staple, something that we all do.”
After started in their home kitchens, Robison and business partner Catarah Hampshire opened their shop in the plaza five years ago. Success came quickly, especially after Southern Girl Desserts won Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2013.
“It’s more than just people coming to buy a cupcake,” Robison said. “Like, we really have gotten the opportunity to know our customers. They know us. We know about their families.”
Farther down the hall from Southern Girl Desserts is a video game store called Game Force. Green walls are lined with hundred of games mostly for Playstation and XBOX. Nicolas Casillas stood behind the register in a blue Nirvana t-shirt.
“In nine years you see a lot of things, mostly for the positive I would say,” he said. “Prior to me working here I heard a lot of stories from the previous employees that in the 90s and heading into 2010 there were a lot problems in the neighborhood that affected the mall. They had issues with like gangs and violence close to here. They had a lot of issues of that nature.”
Casillas said there was a food-court shooting a couple of years ago but nothing like that really happens anymore. Overall he sees the mall as a positive for the community.
“Economically, it provides a lot. It provides jobs, a cornerstone where people can go and chill and hang out,” Casillas said. “Management, they’ve tried to really pursue avenues where they bring entertainment and different cultures and get them to vibe together. It’s all been good. It’s all been positive.”
For a long time the plaza was a cultural hub for African Americans in Los Angeles, known for having a black Santa Claus during the holiday season. But the city is changing, and so is the mall.
“There are people from all walks you know. It’s very diverse. It reflects everybody,” Casillas said. “It’s primarily, I would think African American, then there’s a lot of Latino population that frequent the mall. We’re also starting to get a lot Caucasian, and Asian, and people from different countries as well. We get people from Brazil, just a variety of everything.”
Casillas thinks redeveloping the plaza will broaden the mall’s customer base.
“It’s never a negative to have more customers,” he said. “It brings growth to the neighborhood. Same thing with the economics of it, more jobs, more stability, more positive things to come basically.”
Over the course of six years the mall will expand to include a 10-story office building, a 400 room hotel and 1.2 million square feet of new housing. It will still be under construction when the Crenshaw Metro Line opens right next door in 2019. The light rail will connect Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills to Inglewood and LAX.
Upstairs from Game Force, pop music blares from inside Claire’s, a garishly decorated chain store that offers ear piercings and cheap accessories popular with tweens. Jasmine Casillas, not related to Nicolas Casillas at Game Force, is stocking the shelves. She’s apprehensive about recent changes to the area.
“I feel like I have mixed reviews,” Casillas said. “Just because I think they’re going to be doing the metro, and redoing it to make it a lot nicer, but then with that also comes gentrification and the pushing out of people who already live here.”
Hers is a common fear in low income urban areas. When there’s limited housing and high rents in the rest of the city, developers go looking for investment opportunities in neighborhoods like Crenshaw. Since the Crenshaw Line broke ground in 2014, the median home value in the surrounding neighborhoods has increased by almost 50 percent, according the real estate website Trulia.
Back inside Southern Girl Desserts, Robison doesn’t think the looming changes will impact the community’s love for the mall.
“They’ve watched it grow and go through many many phases,” she said. “And the people that are here, who witnessed it, they continue to come, they continue to support, and I believe it’s something that they want to see continue to grow and thrive.”
Across the country urban areas are transforming at an unprecedented rate. The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is part of a nation-wide trend to center the needs of daily life near transit stops. The big question is: will current residents and businesses survive that transformation?