Inglewood Has Experienced Dramatic Change. The Super Bowl Is Proof of That.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — First, the Lakers and the Kings abandoned Inglewood for a shiny new arena in downtown Los Angeles in 1999. Several years later, the horse racing track shut down. In between, there was the financial crisis, which sent home values plummeting. Things got so bad that the state took over the local school district.
“The only thing that was left, effectively, was a Sizzler and a big doughnut,” said James T. Butts Jr., the mayor of Inglewood, referring to the gigantic steel sculpture that sits atop Randy’s Donuts near the airport, long a strange welcome sign for visitors to Southern California.
Now when you fly into Los Angeles, the first sight to grab your eye is the gleaming, futuristic football cathedral called SoFi Stadium that sits on land left vacant by the horse track. It is one of the priciest sports arenas ever built at more than $5 billion, and lured professional football back to Los Angeles with the Rams and Chargers relocating from St. Louis and San Diego. It opened in the pandemic year of 2020, hosting games but not fans. On Sunday, it will be crammed for the Super Bowl, and Inglewood will command the nation’s attention. The fact that the hometown Rams are in the game makes it even sweeter.
For Inglewood, one of Los Angeles’s last communities with a substantial Black population, the Super Bowl is perhaps the fullest expression of a transformation that has been underway for years. Over the last decade the economy improved and crime fell, making Inglewood attractive to outside development. The old Forum was reopened for concerts, and people came. A new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s youth orchestra opened in a building that was once a Burger King. Another new arena, for the Clippers of the N.B.A., is under construction.
And most significant, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2028 Olympics will be in Inglewood, making the city the face of Los Angeles and the country.
All of this has helped reverse the story and image of Inglewood, and the broader South Los Angeles region, as impoverished and violent. In recent years, the unemployment rate fell dramatically, and the streets became much safer — there were only two homicides in all of 2019. Even the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles moved to Inglewood, and as Mr. Butts said, “When the Girl Scouts come, no one can say you are unsafe.”
So the Super Bowl, in one sense, represents a celebration of Black Los Angeles, even as the N.F.L. itself continues to grapple with its own problems around race, from a lack of Black head coaches to the shunning of Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. The national pageant of football and commerce and culture will spotlight not just Inglewood, which is its own city within Los Angeles County, but the sound of Black Los Angeles, with Dr. Dre (who once rapped that Inglewood was “always up to no good”), Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar as the halftime entertainment.
Yet no amount of excitement over a football game can obscure the downsides of all that development, the anxieties in the community about soaring rents and displacement and the fear that Inglewood will lose its identity as an African American place. While the Black population in some neighboring communities like South Central has declined substantially in recent decades, Inglewood today is about 41 percent Black, compared with 47 percent in 2000.
Nor does the Super Bowl obscure the fact that Black Angelenos, whose population, already small at about 9 percent in Los Angeles County, has been shrinking since the 1980s as many families moved east to the Inland Empire, still suffer far more than others from the region’s calamities.
Take homelessness, perhaps Los Angeles’s defining crisis: More than a third of the homeless population is Black, even though African Americans make up a far smaller portion of the general population. Or take gun violence, which has surged since the pandemic: 36 percent of homicide victims in the city of Los Angeles last year were Black.
Even as racial disparities persist, some see an undeniable renaissance for Inglewood.
“It was traditionally the place that had either been bypassed at best, or worse, where the concentration of suffering had been,” Mayor Eric M. Garcetti of Los Angeles said, adding that the perception of Inglewood and South L.A. was shaped by the unrest after the Rodney King trial and movies about gang warfare. “Since then this is really about inverting that story.”
The last time Los Angeles hosted the Super Bowl was in 1993, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a point in time between perhaps the region’s greatest trauma and its greatest spectacle. Then, Los Angeles was a byword for racial unrest, still reeling from the uprising over the acquittal of four officers for beating Mr. King. O.J. Simpson, who performed the coin toss at that Super Bowl, was a year and a half from infamy.
“The Super Bowl, and the high profile of the Super Bowl itself, and the stadium, doesn’t do anything about issues like that,” said Erin Aubry Kaplan, a longtime resident of Inglewood who has written skeptically of development in her city, and of her surprise at seeing white people walking dogs in her neighborhood. “Unless the population changes. And then there’s no Black people anymore.”
The increase in property values — when ground was broken for SoFi Stadium the median price of a home in Inglewood was under a half a million dollars, and today it is close to $750,000, according to Zillow — has divided the community. There are those who bought a long time ago and held on and have now been able to accumulate, in Mr. Butts’s words, “generational wealth.” Then there are some who rent who have been priced out.
In 2004, Inglewood voters rejected a new Walmart that would have been built near the site where SoFi Stadium sits today, a decision that eventually helped pave the way for Stan Kroenke, a Missouri real estate and sports mogul whose wife is a Walmart heiress, to spend billions for a new stadium in Inglewood and bring professional football back to Southern California.
Damon Haley, who owns a beauty supply store called Glow + Flow in a strip mall in Inglewood, surrounded by a check cashing outfit, a doughnut shop, a tobacco store and a dentist, said his business had thrived. His family has benefited too, he added. His mother has owned a home in Inglewood for 62 years. “She has seen her wealth go up.”
Mr. Haley sits on the board of the Inglewood Chamber of Commerce and is a big booster for the city, but he acknowledged that the development has brought hardship to some. “There’s those that can benefit and those that are going to hurt at some point.”
Mr. Haley has also gotten assistance from the Rams’ community outreach programs, which have helped small businesses, built school playgrounds and supported youth football programs in Inglewood and Watts. Mr. Haley recently received a $25,000 check from the team, which will help pay for new carpeting and new merchandise.
But he said he heard plenty of stories of business owners, facing rising rents, who have left the area altogether. And the stadium, he said, has been bad for business for some. He said a friend who owned another beauty shop — “another Black dude like me,” he said — closed it because traffic has gotten so bad that many customers just stopped coming.
But such owners, Mr. Butts said, still can come away with financial gains. “What has happened is, if those parties want to sell, they sell and usually get a premium,” Mr. Butts said, referring to longtime property owners in Inglewood. “So Inglewood is now attractive to people of all races. There’s no way that’s a bad thing.”
Melissa Hebert, who has lived in Inglewood since 1974 and runs a news site there called 2urbangirls, said she felt great pride that the Super Bowl was in her city, even as she chafed at how the stadium had disrupted life. And that pride, too, is tempered by the N.F.L.’s own problems with race. She sees the league’s partnership with Jay-Z to advance social justice issues as mere window dressing.
“Give them food and cake and they won’t revolt?” she said, paraphrasing the ancient saying about bread and circuses. “You kind of get distracted. You say OK, well Kaepernick settled, they brought in Jay-Z.”
Mr. Butts, sitting in a conference room at City Hall this past week surrounded by memorabilia, including the shovel he used for the ceremonial groundbreaking for the stadium, reflected on Inglewood’s history, and his own.
“Inglewood was incorporated in 1908,” said Mr. Butts, a former police chief of Santa Monica. “Until 1937, Inglewood was the Southern California headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks could not buy in Inglewood because there were covenants on the properties that you couldn’t sell to a colored person.”
All week, Mr. Butts has been thinking of his late father, who moved from North Carolina to Los Angeles in the middle of the last century, in search of a better future.
“Not only did he not want to be a sharecropper, he didn’t want his children to grow up with such limited opportunities,” said Mr. Butts, who recalled his father taking him to see the Rams at the Coliseum in the 1960s. “And he told me that. He said, ‘I had no interest in being a sharecropper. And I had no interest in working in a sawmill in Wilmington.’”
Meanwhile, as visitors fly in to Los Angeles, once they finish gawking at the sight of SoFi, they may, if they squint their eyes as they approach the runway, see a red tent just outside the airport’s perimeter.
The tent is the home of a middle-aged man named Eugene, who has lived on the streets for two years. Like many Black Angelenos, he grew up in South Los Angeles, left as a teenager to suburbs in the north of the county, and came back. He had recently packed his belongings, because the previous night police officers told him he needed to move away from construction in the area.
“I’ll probably go to the next block until they tell me I can’t be there,” he said.
He said he hoped to watch the Super Bowl, perhaps at a sports bar in Venice. Then he went into his tent for a moment, and returned holding a jersey of Eric Dickerson, the former Rams superstar.
“I already know who’s going to win,” he said.