The First Baptist Church of Venice is fighting to preserve the 110 year legacy of its historically black congregation and is seeking public letters to support its designation as a historic cultural monument.
The stakes to save the church building are high. It was sold into private ownership in 2017 and without a historic designation it is likely to be demolished and transformed into private residences.
To many residents this epitomizes the gentrification and erasure of history in the historically black neighborhood of Oakwood, where African American laborers who dug the Venice canals first built a community in the 1910s and 1920s.
Over the following decades black residents faced redlining, police harassment, unconstitutional gang injunctions, exclusion from local political groups, predatory real estate, and rising gentrification, according to fifth generation Venetian and Oakwood native Mike Bravo.
Through all these challenges the church served as a spiritual refuge for the community.
“First Baptist Church in Venice is the living symbol of this struggle, resilience, love, vision, and transformation. It is and has always been a spiritual beacon at the crossroads of the historic African American community in Venice and must be preserved as such,” said Oakwood native Naomi Nightingale.
A coalition of community members called Save Venice have submitted the building for consideration by Los Angeles City Planning’s Office of Historic Resources for Historic Designation Process.
The church’s hearing is scheduled to occur before the end of the month and organizers are asking community members to send letters on why they feel the building should be preserved to firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of the day on Thursday.
The First Baptist Church of Venice was founded in 1910 and the building in question, located at 685 Westminster Ave, served as the congregation’s place of worship since 1968.
In 2015, unbeknown to many community members, the church was put up for sale as it had fallen into financial trouble under what many residents say was corrupt leadership of Bishop Horace Allen. It was purchased by Jay Penske, CEO of Penske Media Corporation in 2017 who sought to use the land to build a private house.
After years of sustained community backlash, development plans on the site have stalled and the future of the property is uncertain.
In 2018, LA City Planning denied historic designation for the church. Given the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and increased awareness of injustices faced by the black community, organizers are hoping that this time around they will be successful.
“By acknowledging it this will help reinforce trends that will lift up a lot of non white histories,” said Bravo. “You can’t love anybody that you don’t know or understand. If you learn black and brown histories you understand today’s issues more. If there’s more love and there’s more progress that is a better situation to create solutions.”
If the church is recognized as a historic cultural monument the group plans to raise enough money to buy back the space. Bravo said they want to renovate the building, create a library, museum, garden and open it as a spiritual gathering place for all Venetians and all people.
“For the last 100 years it’s been a space for the community, by the community, so we want to keep it as an investment in the community and respecting our history, especially at a time when gentrification is out of control,” said Bravo. “It was centered in the black spiritual tradition but really everybody used that space and it was welcome for anybody to use and enjoy.”