Believe it or not, South LA is home to one of the very first modern malls in the nation. And that history starts with the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, locally known as the Crenshaw Mall.
Before the Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills neighborhoods of Southwest Los Angeles were developed, it was primarily private ranch land owned by Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, a wealthy landowner in the late 19th and early 20th century who held more than 40,000 acres of land across Los Angeles.
This large amount of land is important because malls require a large amount of space, usually found in suburbs. Developer group Trousdale and associates acquired 65 acres of Baldwin’s land, who envisioned a shopping center like no other–one that consumers could drive to–especially since no one lived in the Baldwin Hills or Crenshaw neighborhoods just yet.
In November of 1947, The Broadway, a major department store in the 20th century, opened a $6 million, 200,000 square foot store in what was then called the Crenshaw Center. This retail development had a whopping 10-and-a-half acre, 2,200 car parking lot.
Soon after The Broadway department store brought customers in droves, the Crenshaw Center began to grow rapidly. In a matter of months, stores like Alpert’s Fabric Store, this 50,000-square-foot Von’s market, an Owl Rexall Super Drug Store, Desmond’s, and the tailored business apparel store Silverwoods began opening up shops. And the list of retail spaces began to grow, grow, and grow. Between the Crenshaw Center’s opening in 1947 to April of 1949, there were over $12 million in store and shopping developments. If you consider inflation, that would be the equivalent of nearly $138 million today.
At the same time, the Baldwin Hill Neighborhood had been subdivided, after Lucky Waters sold most of his land holdings, and developers were selling brand new homes in the hills that overlooked the Crenshaw Center, and highlighting access to the growing center as a draw.
By 1950, now in the hands of the Capital company, the new developer of the shopping center, the retail powerhouse continued to expand with additional retail locations. And within the first three years, the retail locations generated an annual revenue of $40 million. And by 1952, the Crenshaw Center had a total of 50 stores, and over 9 acres of parking.
The Decline Part 1
The booming success of this shopping center remained contingent on the high-spending consumers that lived near the center and who frequently visited the center. And when the neighborhood changed, the mall did, too.
In this Los Angeles Times Article, one reporter notes that at the beginning of the 1960s, the Crenshaw Neighborhood was 65 percent white, with Japanese and Korean-Americans standing in as the rest of the population. Before the end of the 1960s, the Crenshaw neighborhood was 79 percent Black, 10 percent White and Hispanic, and 11 percent Asian. The reporter noted that as the makeup of the population changed, the level of city services and available capital diminished.
Between 1972 and 1977, retail sales at the Crenshaw Center declined 50 percent. And the perfect storm occurred: the grand opening of the nearby Fox Hills Culver City Mall that opened mere miles away in the mid 70s encouraged those with capital to spend outside of their neighborhoods. And with an influx of residents moving to Crenshaw from the low income eastside neighborhood, meant there was less capital to maintain the retail development.
By the mid 70s, the economic growth of the mall dried up, and several of the big box retailers moved or simply went out of business.
And by 1984, the Crenshaw Center buildings, ill-maintained in the changing black community, were condemned by the city.
The Crenshaw neighborhood, while majority black in the early 70s, still remained a middle class neighborhood, compared to neighborhoods in the southeast.
It’s completely baffling how one decade this mall pulled in over a half a billion dollars, and the next decade it was no longer able to support itself.
A Glimmer of Hope
In 1984, the Los Angeles City Council approved a redevelopment plan for the Crenshaw Center. The council secured over $50 million in funding, and started the search to find a developer that would bring the mall back to its former glory.
In 1989, Los Angeles City Council, then-mayor Tom Bradley, and developer Alexander Haagen, reopened the mall as the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the current name of the development. The newly built retail center was fully enclosed, and offered two-levels of retail stores.
I also just want to go on a tangent here to say two things: First, this was the first and only Walmart in the bounds of LA City. Second, that Walmart never had any employees on the first floor, and I’d often had to go to the third level just to check out. If you got a unique experience with that Walmart, post it in the comments below.
The Decline Part 2
If this was 2005, this would be a happy ending for the Crenshaw mall. But this is the era of COVID, so there aren’t too many happy endings right now.
Despite the immense investment from retailers, developers, and the city, The mall constantly changed hands to holding companies and by the mid 2010, the retail development of the mall began to fall once again.
In 2010, the mall owner planned a $30 million development with an upgraded food court, new restaurants, and a brand new interior to build a better mall experience. In 2016, Walmart closed its Crenshaw location along with 268 other stores across the globe. Sears, another major anchor store at the mall, closed in 2019. Left with Macy’s and TJ Maxx as its last remaining anchor stores, the mall lost much of its appeal.
And in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic reduced mall revenues across the country.
In that same year, the mall ended up in the hands of a Chicago private equity fund. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the CIM group attempted to buy the mall with plans of building an outdoor-style mall, with offices and building, but it later pulled out of a deal.
In 2021, the local community organization Downtown Crenshaw Rising offered a $115 million bid for the mall, with promise to raise more capital to develop the mall and maintain the businesses already situated at the mall. The bid was rejected, in favor of a $111 million offer by the Hadridge Development.
Yes, I realize what I wrote. This property sold for $4 million less than what the Downtown Crenshaw Rising offered. But the Chicago private equity fund accepted the Harridge Development Group’s offer in August 2021.
Why? I don’t know, actually. If I had to guess, Hadridge likely had more cash on hand and, on paper, seemed less likely to send the property into foreclosure. Typically with commercial property, you strike a deal directly with the owner, and pay them monthly with a balloon payment at the end. Few organizations have enough cash on hand to buy such a large property. It’s a risk. The Chicago Fund, I think, was going for the safe bet.
In a Los Angeles Times article, reported after the deal had been accepted, Haadridge leadership said they have immediate plans to build housing on the parking lot near Albertson’s within the next year and a half, but they plan to keep the mall operating as is. The developer group expects to spend $1 billion in improvements over the next 7 years.
Today, the mall still stands as a community hub and a mecca for black business. On weekends, you can find the SEE-LA Famer’s market, operating from 10 a.m, to 3 p.m., and Nothing But B.L.K. Flea Market on select Saturdays. Throughout the parking lot of the mall, you’ll find thriving black owned businesses, like Post & Beam, and Hotville Chicken. Inside the mall is a black-owned bookstore called Malik books.
The mall itself is quiet on an average Saturday, with a few corners actually void of business.
But all of this is likely to change in the next few years: LA’s newest light rail, The Crenshaw Line–also known as the K Line has a stop planned next to the mall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. This development will likely bring a new crowd of people, and encourage others to visit the mall across Los Angeles.
Either way it goes, I don’t know what the Crenshaw neighborhood will look like in the next five years, but there’s a possibility that it can be vastly different. The neighborhood is also changing day-by-day, and developers are looking for any sign of revitalization to make an extra dollar.