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National Geographic

THE FIGHT TO SAVE 100 YEARS OF BLACK HISTORY IN GENTRIFYING LOS ANGELES. When a white media mogul bought a historic Black church, it was the ultimate sign of gentrification in Venice, California. Can the community save the building and preserve their neighborhood?

BY OLIVER WHANG PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL BUJALSKI

ON A SUMMER day in 2017, Pam Anderson was walking toward 7th and Westminster, an intersection in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice, California, that she’d gotten to know well over nearly 70 years. She spotted her friend, Laddie Williams, sitting in front of a building on the corner—a building that served for many years as a refuge for family, tradition, and worship. “I said, Laddie, why you out there? What’s going on? And she said, Girl, you know what’s going on here? I just got a call… and they’re selling the church.”

Williams and Anderson were teenagers in 1968, when the First Baptist Church of Venice was constructed, but the congregation, made up primarily of Black and Hispanic members, has been around since the 1920s. Now the church’s fate seemed to mirror that of the community it had long served.

Over the past 50 years Oakwood, a historically Black and Hispanic neighborhood founded by workers who dug the area’s distinctive canals, has gradually become majority white. As Los Angeles grew larger and wealthier in the second half of the 20th century, residents migrated to beachside neighborhoods. By the early 2000s Oakwood was a hot real estate market. Starbucks moved in, then Whole Foods. Older single-family homes were knocked down and replaced with modern apartment buildings, what Anderson calls BUBs—big ugly boxes. Real estate got more expensive, and more exclusive. Many families decided to sell.

“We became a cheap buy for wealthy people who saw a shiny object between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey,” says Naomi Nightingale, another longtime Oakwood resident. “And they could build their mansions on this little piece of land without regard for who was there or what had been built before they came, just because they wanted it.”

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