Black Americans Give Entertainment Options Failing Grades

Jun 7, 2013
Originally published on June 7, 2013 5:29 pm

All this week on Code Switch and on air we've been digging into the findings of a survey of African-American views of their communities, finances and social lives. We conducted the poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

What scored lowest in terms of community satisfaction — the most Ds and Fs — were local entertainment venues.

People often talk about African-Americans and other minorities being subject to "food deserts" — areas where fresh, healthy, affordable food is hard to come by. The findings in our poll suggest that we should be thinking about "popcorn deserts," too.

I called up some of the people surveyed to find out why they hated their movie theaters and clubs so much. What I heard fell into two distinct categories. First, there's not much to do, and the little there is to do is of low quality and/or unsafe. The second category of complaint boiled down to: Entertainment in my neighborhood is geared toward white people, and I feel out of place.

I caught up with Angela Berry-Payne on the phone while she was baby-sitting. She lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in Athens, Ga. She says she can't stand the nightclubs that cater to African-Americans in downtown Athens.

"Downtown is always something, always something!" Berry-Payne says. "Everywhere we go now, it's always some kind of violence, some kind of interruption."

George Clarke lives in Waltham, Mass., a majority-white suburb of Boston, and he says there's just nothing for him in terms of entertainment there.

"When you look around, and you don't see another face that's as dark as you, then you know that you might be in the wrong place," he says. Clarke says he travels 45 minutes on public transportation to have a beer in the "right place."

Jennifer Heasley — a single mom and teacher who lives in York, Pa. — agrees with both Berry-Payne and Clarke. She's uncomfortable with her suburban entertainment options: "Often, my children and I go out, and we're in a restaurant, and we're the only black family."

She's uneasy with her more urban options, too. She likes the diversity in downtown York, but says she isn't thrilled with the entertainment available because it's substandard or dangerous.

Heasley doesn't understand why what she's looking for is so hard to find. "Live entertainment, a nice jazz band, maybe some spoken word, an environment where it's brick and low lighting and people are stimulated by the conversation that's going on," says Heasley, "that's what I would like to see."

Preston Lauterbach, author of The Chitlin' Circuit, says entertainment "is good for the soul."

"Entertainment hits you the best and hits you the hardest when it's directed towards you," he says.

He says that the heyday for black entertainment venues — especially in the South — took place during segregation:

"Saturday night on Broadway in Macon, Ga., in 1954, you would have a decision to make, because down on the corner at the 5 Spot might be Ray Charles, across the street at the Cotton Club might be Little Richard, down the highway at another place might be James Brown."

Lauterbach says that with the triumph of integration came the dismantling of thriving entertainment corridors.

"That social fabric has been torn, and it has yet to be stitched back together in a way that fully meets the needs of those communities the way that those needs were once met," he says.

I had a long conversation with one entrepreneur trying to meet the entertainment needs of the African-American community. We spoke at a movie theater in South Los Angeles. The 15-screen cineplex at the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza had a recent face-lift, thanks in part to Ken Lombard's efforts.

I broke the news to Lombard that entertainment venues drew the lowest ratings in our survey. He says he's not surprised; he's been in the business for more than 25 years.

Lombard worked with Magic Johnson to open this theater in a historically black part of Los Angeles nearly 20 years ago. He says people were desperate for a nice, clean venue close to home, and when it opened, it was a huge success.

Today, the investment firm he works for has spent $35 million revamping the entire mall in order to offer better shopping and dining. He says profits are up, but adds that it hasn't been easy. The default response he gets from retail and restaurant brokers is often no. (And he's not the only one.)

"We don't expect the answer to always be yes," Lombard says. "But what we expect is, come and take the tour, look at the neighborhoods, roll your sleeves up and try to understand it in very much the same way you do non-minority communities. And then you'll see some significant progress."

Lombard says that to be successful, entertainment venues have to feel authentic and relevant to African-Americans. But you have to put in the work to understand your patrons.

The results of this poll suggest there are a good number of people out there feeling ignored.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

All this week, we've been digging into the findings of a survey about African-Americans' views of their communities, finances, social lives. We conducted the poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. What scored the lowest grades - the most D's and F's - were local entertainment venues. From NPR's Code Switch team - which covers race, ethnicity and culture - Shereen Marisol Meraji has our story.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: How can I put this? Local government got better marks than entertainment venues. So I called up some of the people surveyed, to find out why.

ANGELA BARRY PAYNE: I'm on the phone. Can you hold it?

MERAJI: I caught Angela Barry Payne(ph) while she was babysitting. She lives in Athens, Ga., and says she can't stand the nightclubs there - too many guns.

PAYNE: Downtown is always something, always something. Where we go now, some kind of violence, some kind of interruption.

GEORGE CLARK: As a black man, there is just nothing that is really - that you'd want to go to, that you'd want to hang out.

MERAJI: George Clark(ph) lives in Waltham, a majority white suburb of Boston.

CLARK: And when you look around and you don't see another face as dark as you, then you know that you might be in the wrong place.

MERAJI: Clark says he travels 45 minutes on public transportation to have a beer in the right place. And Jennifer Heasley(ph), a single mom who lives just outside of York, Pa., agrees with both. She's uncomfortable with her suburban entertainment options.

JENNIFER HEASLEY: Often, my children and I go out, and we're in a restaurant, and we're the only black family.

MERAJI: But she adds that she's uneasy going out in downtown York, where there's more diversity but the few options available are either dangerous or dirty. Heasley doesn't get why what she's looking for is so hard to find.

HEASLEY: Live entertainment, a nice jazz band, maybe some spoken word; an environment where, you know, it's brick and it's low lighting, and people are stimulated by the conversation that's going on. That's what I would like to see.

PRESTON LAUTERBACH: Entertainment is good for the soul, and entertainment hits you the best and hits you the hardest when it's directed towards you.

MERAJI: Preston Lauterbach is the author of "The Chitlin' Circuit." He writes that the heyday for black entertainment venues took place during segregation.

LAUTERBACH: Saturday night on Broadway; Macon, Ga., in 1954 - you would have a decision to make because down on the corner, at the Five Spot, might be Ray Charles. Across the street, at the Cotton Club, might be Little Richard. Down the highway, at another place, might be James Brown.

MERAJI: Lauterbach says with the triumph of integration came the dismantling of these thriving entertainment corridors.

LAUTERBACH: That social fabric has been torn, and it has yet to be stitched back together in a way that fully meets the needs of those communities the way that those needs were once met.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're going to see "Now You've Seen Me" in Auditorium 9; that'll be to your right.

MERAJI: I met up with one entrepreneur trying to meet the entertainment needs of the African-American community at a movie theater in South Los Angeles. The 15-screen Cineplex at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza got a facelift, thanks in part to Ken Lombard's(ph) efforts. I broke the news to Lombard that entertainment venues drew the lowest ratings in our survey.

KEN LOMBARD: Well, it's really not surprising to me. You know, like I've been in this business over 25 years.

MERAJI: Lombard worked with Magic Johnson to open this theater, in a historically black part of LA, almost 20 years ago now. He says people were desperate for a nice, clean venue close to home and when it opened, it was a huge success. Today, the investment firm he works for has spent $35 million revamping the entire mall to offer better shopping and dining, and he says profits are up. But, Lombard adds, it hasn't been easy. The default response he gets from retail and restaurant brokers is often, no.

LOMBARD: We don't expect the answer to always be yes, but what we expect is come and take the tour, look at the neighborhoods, roll your sleeves up and understand it in very much the same way that you do in non-minority communities. And then I think we'll start seeing some significant progress.

MERAJI: Lombard says to be successful, entertainment venues have to feel authentic and relevant to African-Americans. But you have to put in the work to understand your patrons. The results of this poll suggest there are a good number of people out there feeling ignored. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.