the transformative power of live theater


90011: South Central Los Angeles, the “West Coast Harlem”

Ryan McRee

90011—South Central

California Eagle Columnist Harvey Levette wrote about Central Avenue in 1935: “The dizzy white lights are dancing daringly again, lightsome, lilting, laughter, is tinkling from lips curved merrily in happy faces of white, brown cream or rich orange as the gay, many colored gowns of women of all races flutter like so many tropic butterflies.” Though only traces remain today, the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles was in the first half of the twentieth century the epicenter of Jazz culture on the West Coast, so much so that it was known as “the West Coast Harlem” in its heyday.

In 1914 Sidney P. Dones opened the Sidney P. Dones Company at 8th Street and Central Ave, which offered real estate, insurance, and legal services. Dones represented a number of influential black business leaders who in the early 20th century made a conscious effort to create an enclave for African-Americans in Los Angeles. Next door to the black-owned California Eagle newspaper, Dones’ company was among the first of black-owned businesses, churches, and services that would be swiftly established in the area. By 1930 about 17,500 African-Americans lived near Central Ave, and by 1940 that number had jumped to nearly 43,000, about 4% of the total population of L.A. The jazz scene really began to flourish during WWII as that population more than doubled in only four years. Due to segregated housing and established practices of banks and insurance companies denying loans and financial services to blacks in predominantly white areas, South Central was one of the few places where black Angelenos could comfortably live. In 1940 70% of the city’s back population was confined to the Central Avenue corridor, and the name South Central became a blanket term for black Los Angeles as a whole.

In 1928, Dr. John Somerville and his wife Vada Watson, the first black man and woman to graduate from the USC Dental School and founders of the L.A. chapter of the NAACP, bought a corner lot at 42nd and Central and built a $250,000 hotel using only black craftsmen and labor. The Somerville Hotel looked like a palace on Central Avenue, and the four-story luxury hotel became the unofficial town hall of black Los Angeles. It became a place for important thinkers and prominent figures in the black community to gather and discuss issues of the day, including W.E.B. Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, Joe Lewis, and Josephine Baker. Despite the hotel’s success, the Somerville’s struggled during the Depression and were forced to sell it, and the new white owners renamed it the Dunbar, after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The hotel then rapidly changed hands a number of times until Chicago businessman Jimmy Nelson bought it in 1936 for $87,500. It was under Nelson’s ownership that the Dunbar would acquire its reputation as arguably the most influential and celebrated venue on Central Avenue. It became a celebrity magnet for black America, and guests included Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

In 1934 the Club Alabam opened right next door to the Dunbar, and the corner of 42nd and Central became a buzzing thoroughfare. Big-name artists including Billie Holiday, Johnny Otis, and Gerald Wilson played at the Alabam over the years, and the club also featured stand-up comedians and a famous chorus line. Other famous clubs along the Avenue included the Downbeat, Elk’s Hall, the Bird and Basket, the Lincoln Theatre, Dynamite Jackson’s, and Ivie’s Chicken Shack. The Lincoln Theatre was the largest African-American theatre on Central Ave, boasting 2,100 seats. It developed the name “the West Coast Apollo,” and featured stars including Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as hosting touring musical productions from New York.

In 1936 Samuel Browne, the first African-American music teacher in the Los Angeles public school system, started teaching at Jefferson High School. Over his 25-year tenure at the school he became a major influence on the up-and-coming jazz musicians of Los Angeles, and Jefferson High School maintained a continuous stream of new artists into the Central Ave jazz scene, keeping it fresh and thriving. He created a robust music curriculum that included music theory, music appreciation, harmony, counterpoint, orchestra, band, and choir, and would bring students to Central Ave to hear the musicians play and sometimes even brought performers like Jimmie Lunceford or Nat King Cole into the classroom. Browne’s former student and jazz pianist Horace Tapscott recalled:

“He was able to come in and to teach or to inspire, just come and talk with you. He made sure he kept an eye on you and he really dug you. “I dig you, man.” That’s what he’d tell you. “You don’t understand that yet. But I dig you.”

The prominence of the Avenue began to decline in the 50s. The 1948 Supreme Court Case Shelley v. Kraemer struck down racially restrictive housing covenants, and as neighborhoods began to de-segregate over the course of the 50s and 60s, the need for a concentrated focal point like Central Avenue was lessened. Black Angelenos also struggled with the complete deterioration of their relationship with the LAPD. Chief William Parker, who was the head of the LAPD from 1950 to 1966, earned the department a notorious reputation for brutality and racial profiling. His aggressive policing methods that included harassment of businesses and patrons along Central Avenue contributed immensely to the decline of the area’s vibrancy and was also a leading cause of the 1965 Watts Riots. Nightclubs and juke joints were raided and shuttered. Historian Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz:

“In 1954 John Dolphin, owner of Los Angeles’ premier R&B record store near the corner of Vernon and Central, organized a protest of 150 Black business people against an ongoing “campaign of intimidation and terror” directed at interracial trade. According to Dolphin, Newton Division police had gone so far as to blockade his store, turning away all white customers and warning them that “it was too dangerous to hang around Black                            neighborhoods.”

Another crushing blow to the neighborhood was the California State Highway Commission’s decision to build both the 110 and I-10 freeways through the heart of South Central. The path for Interstate 10 led to the demolition of Sugar Hill in the West Adams neighborhood, one of the most beautiful and well-kept African-American neighborhoods in the United States. Boyle Heights, which was home to a significant population of African-Americans who had moved from the Avenue, has similarly decimated by the junction of multiple highways. While the black communities in these areas organized and protested their case to Sacramento, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Even through the turbulent 1960s pockets of South Central retained some degree of its old vibrancy and artistic flourishing, despite the Dunbar’s glory having long faded. After the Watts Riots, South Central became a hotbed for the Civil Rights movement. There was a political electricity in the air that kept the residents’ spirits strong until the 1980s. Economic changes that had led to a wave of unemployment and disappearance of available jobs, coupled with the rise of gangs and the crack cocaine epidemic, devastated the area. During this difficult and turbulent time, even as South Central was gaining a wide reputation for its impoverished and struggling black community, its population became increasingly more Latinx, and by the year 2000 there were more Latinx than African-Americans in the area.

Unfortunately, relatively few traces of Central Avenue’s glory days remain. The Dunbar still stands and has undergone multiple renovations, and currently serves as a source of low-income housing for the elderly. The Lincoln Theatre has also survived and is now a Latinx community church. The 28th Street YMCA, one of the only remaining club buildings founded by and for African-Americans and a major milestone for recreational life on Central Avenue, was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. The Golden State Mutual Insurance Building, built in 1925 for one of the first major black-owned businesses in South Central, also still stands. The Central Ave Jazz Park, located right across the street from the Dunbar, is one of the venues for the Central Avenue Jazz Festival that has been held annually since 1996. The festival spotlights jazz, blues, and Latin Jazz artists who got their start in the area, local high school bands and choirs, and young musicians from across Los Angeles. It is a free, non-commercial event that aims to preserve the legacy of Central Avenue and promote the local community.

One of South Central’s biggest hurdles today is gentrification. As USC continues to expand into the area, organizations such as Community Coalition and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy work to combat displacement of the residents who have always lived there. Local activist Skira Martinez says, “The history of South Central says and shows it all, and as a community, we have no choice but to actively resist by the many means necessary and available. For many, to say that this is life or death is not an exaggeration.”

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