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?

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The First Baptist Church of Venice has served the Black and Hispanic communities of Oakwood, California for over a century. Since it was sold in 2017 to media magnate Jay Penske, the building has been at the center of a conversation about gentrification.

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. (Workers in San Diego struggle to navigate the booming cost of urban life.)

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Community members and other supporters gather outside the steps of First Baptist to demonstrate their opposition to the building's new owners, who are trying to turn it into a residential complex. Some locals have been meeting here every Sunday since 2017.

“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.”

At the same time, families of color were also leaving the neighborhood because of gang injunctions the Los Angeles Police Department had placed on Oakwood. This often took the form of no-knock searches, like the one that led to Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Kentucky, and restrictive sanctions on young men of color that prevented many from gathering with friends and family in public. The injunctions started in the 1980s and continued into the 2010s, until a federal court ruled them unconstitutional in 2018.

“Being Black or Latino, whenever the police would come to your door, you were scared,” says Williams, who has lived in Oakwood her whole life. “Families moved out to get their kids away from the gang injunction because you couldn’t be anywhere in Venice and not get stopped or harassed or arrested by the police if they deemed you a gang member.”

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Left to right: Laddie Williams, Pam Anderson, Lydia Ponce. Williams and Anderson were among the first community members to sit outside First Baptist after it was sold.

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Chaka Foreman, a teacher at Mark Twain Middle School in Venice, stands in his empty classroom. Foreman has been encouraging students and parents to have conversations with their families about the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of community action.

The First Baptist Church often found itself at the forefront of the community’s pushback against gentrification, led by Bishop E.L. Holmes, who was, in Williams’s words, “iconic.” During his 44 years at the church, she says, Holmes mentored the young men who found themselves stuck between gang violence and police intimidation. He supported families during the injunctions and represented the Black and Hispanic congregants’ interests on committees and planning boards. (For Black motorists, there's a never-ending fear of being stopped by police.)

Under Holmes, the church became a center of stability for Oakwood residents as their neighborhood slowly shifted around them. When he died in 1999, the community held a three-day funeral and remembrance in his honor. The following year, Venice named the intersection outside the church E.L. Holmes Square.

The church struggled financially under new leadership and was put up for sale by its congregation in 2015. When it was sold for $6.3 million two years later to Jay Penske, the chairman and CEO of Penske Media, to be turned into a multi-family private residence, it became a tangible symbol of gentrification.

Seeing the church’s doors shut and its windows busted out on that day in 2017, Williams thought of the weddings, baptisms, and funerals she’d gone to over the years. She thought of Holmes and the long history of people of color in Oakwood. “It just sparked something in me,” she says. “I felt my duty was to go and save that history that has been so prevalent in the community for over 100 years. So I started sitting.”

“Bulldozing the history”

Since Williams’s first sit-in in 2017, a small group of community members has been meeting in front of the boarded-up church on Sundays. They call themselves Save Venice, and their goals are two-fold: To stall development of the property through existing codes and regulations, and to convince the Venice city council to designate the First Baptist Church a historic site, which would protect the structure. Save Venice hopes the church will become a reminder of the legacy of Black and Hispanic people in Oakwood, even as fewer of them live there. (See the most stunning churches in the U.S.)

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Laddie Williams's grandchildren outside her house in Oakwood. The Venice gang injunctions, which were carried out by the LAPD for decades before being ruled unconstitutional in 2018, played a role in pushing Black and Hispanic families out of the neighborhood, which set the stage for gentrification.

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Activists and community members gather for a weekly meeting in front of First Baptist Church.

Not all members of the Oakwood community want the church preserved. The preservation effort is complicated by the fact that when the First Baptist Church building was sold in 2017, the congregation moved to another location nearby—it didn’t dissolve. This was largely deemed the right move by church members. “That was our home, I was at that church more than I was here at my house,” says Antoinette Reynolds, a member of the congregation and long-time Oakwood resident whose nonprofit partnered with the church in the years before it was sold. “I did car washes there, I fed the homeless there, people came looking for me crying there. I had more to lose than any of those [protesters]. And I don’t feel like some white person came and took it from me. I don’t.”

Reynolds understands why community members have opposed the development of the building, but to her, the effort is misplaced. “They feel like everything has been taken away from them in this community," she says. "But people can’t take anything away from you. You have to decide to sell it. I think we should focus on preserving what we have now; the buildings, those are just places where we’ve gathered and we met. But we're bigger than that.”

“You raze the buildings that are here and you build what you want it to look like,” says Nightingale, on the other hand. “But in that process, you’re bulldozing the history, the culture, the contributions of the African-American community, so that it can’t be seen and cannot be acknowledged, and there’s no evidence of it.”

In June, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement brought fresh attention to Save Venice’s cause. Young, white residents from the other side of Los Angeles started showing up on Sundays and posting on social media. National and regional newspapers started running articles about the movement. People who had never heard of the church started paying attention. The number of protesters at the Sunday sit-ins swelled to a couple hundred. The fight for the building became a symbol of resilience.

Ty Martinez, a recent graduate from Venice High School, worked with Save Venice to organize a memorial for victims of police brutality at First Baptist in June. The church was a rallying point for Martinez, who wanted the protest to be a first step toward reconstructing what he saw as oppressive systems, like the city police. “The church doesn't hold as much weight as other issues," Martinez says. "I understand that it is a fight against gentrification, but that’s not at the front of my mind. It doesn’t feel as urgent.”

Even so, Save Venice leaders were happy to have the support and attention. In light of the protests, city councilman Mike Bonin suggested he may revisit his approval of the church’s redevelopment. Some protesters hope that the building could become a community center. (National Geographic reached out to the Penskes, who had no comment.)

The people who have been fighting to save First Baptist remain hopeful and committed to their cause; dedication is paying off. “All of us felt like we needed to save the community,” Williams said. “We gotta save this hundred-year-old history. We gotta save what our great-grandparents and our grandparents believed in, because that’s all they had.”

Rachel Bujalski is a San Francisco-based photographer. Her work largely examines the lifestyles and personalities of people living on the fringes of society.