What We Learned From Flying a Drone in Leimert Park

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It was a sunny February day in Los Angeles. The sky was perfectly blue, unmuddled by smog. We were in Leimert Park in South Los Angeles to see a new “People Street.” And we brought our drone.

The People Street program is a partnership initiative between LADOT and local community organizations to transform small stretches of underused streets into pedestrian-friendly plazas or parklets. Leimert Park’s plaza was one of the first three places selected to be transformed.

This small stretch of street is home to an old store front that now houses Kaos, a community-oriented media arts organization, and the 1930s Vision Theater, which is being refurbished. The theater’s Art Deco spire harkens to the 1930s, when this neighborhood was bustling.

“Almost every person who is of international fame artistically almost lived within this 6-mile radius,” said Ben Caldwell, a filmmaker and professor at USC and UCLA who spearheaded Leimert Park’s People St. program. Caldwell named Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Richard Pryor as people who have spent time in Leimert Park. “Any black person who was internationally famous lived here.”

But it wasn’t only a black community. “It started also initially with it being a white enclave. Howard Hughes, Jane Russell, and Janet Leigh, all these people are a part of the people who walk the streets here, too, and we want to bring that out.”

Last year, Metro broke ground on the Crenshaw Line, which will bring commuters coming from LAX here to Leimert Park to switch trains. Caldwell hopes this will lead to increased business in the area and make it more of a destination.

Caldwell had asked us to bring our new and barely used Phantom Quadcopter and camera to the plaza to help him get a bird’s-eye view. He said it would help him figure out what else should go in the pedestrian space, to create a visual rendering of sorts.

The People St. makes for a welcoming space: The concrete is a warm terracotta, inlaid with large beige dots, which stand out when viewed from above. Caldwell wants to overlay these with Adinkra symbols, an ancient writing that still persists in Ashanti and West African cultures.

A shot from the drone shows the polka-dotted plaza.
A shot from the drone shows the polka-dotted plaza. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Caldwell’s project gave us a way to try out our drone and to find out if it could help tell a story. KCRW is not the only news organization to have a drone. The BBC and CBS have produced incredible videos with an eerie slow-motion perspective on things. CNN just got permission from the FAA to develop drones specifically for news gathering. We wanted to know what the challenges were when employing a technology that’s still in its infancy. We had a few teething problems that day.

After one rough landing our drone sustained a little damage. We sent it up again but it was drifting and we had to bring it down without quite knowing where it would land. After some searching, we were able to triangulate its location by tracking the Go-Pro camera’s wifi signal.

A Leimert park resident and People Street advocate, Enkone, ultimately found the drone. He said it was a “telepathic” experience, he had sensed it was nearby.

Fortunately, the drone did not cause any damage. We didn’t have to disturb neighbors or ask to search backyards. But, it needs to be repaired and we are going to get better training before we take it out again.

We asked Caldwell why he thought the drone would be useful. He said he wanted to show how Leimert Park is at the heart of LA. Furthermore, “our neighborhood is beautiful,” he said. “All of Los Angeles should just cross south of the 10 Freeway and you’ll be surprised by the beauty that we have here in this community.”

Find out more about the People St., and its music and art programming , here.