Denis Anaya, a Salvadoran notary, said his Latino friends could not understand why he moved his office last year to a black neighborhood on Central Avenue that they associated with "gang-banging" and drive-by shootings.
"My friends told me, 'You're crazy. How can you live there? They'll kill you,' " recalled Anaya, 31. Even now, he said, "a lot of my friends won't visit me here."
Ironically, Anaya said he moved to South-Central Los Angeles to escape the violent drug trade that operated just outside his office in the Central American neighborhood near MacArthur Park. His new neighborhood, he said, is more peaceful.
In recent years, Anaya and other Latino merchants and residents have transformed much of South Los Angeles from a segregated black community to a Latino barrio. The changes can be both seen and heard near Anaya's office at the intersection of Central Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, two streets long synonymous with African-American Los Angeles.
Here, dance halls, theaters and shops catered in the 1940s and 1950s to a growing population of black migrants from the rural South and overcrowded cities of the North. At the nearby Dunbar Hotel, jazz greats Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington held court, occasionally filling the Art Deco lobby with the sounds of an impromptu jam session.
Today, however, the glory days of Central Avenue are only a memory, and the community moves to a distinctly Latin beat. Instead of jazz, passers-by hear the slow-tempo melodies of Mexican ranchera music drifting from the El Paraiso grocery. And in a sea of Latino-run appliance and furniture stores, only a handful of black-owned businesses survive.
One of those businesses is the two-chair barbershop of Andrew Brembry, 75, a Central Avenue entrepreneur since 1952. With each passing year, Brembry is doing business in an increasingly Spanish-speaking environment.
Indeed, so many Latinos have settled in the area that in 1988 it set a nationwide record for the greatest number of successfully completed applications for the immigration amnesty program.
Perhaps nowhere in Southern California did Latino immigration in the 1980s have a greater impact than in black enclaves of South-Central Los Angeles, its neighboring communities of Athens and Willowbrook and the cities of Compton and Lynwood.
The 45-square-mile area has long been the heart and soul of the largest black community in the western United States. Scarcely two generations ago large portions of the city were racially segregated either through property deeds or social barriers that kept blacks out of other neighborhoods. South Los Angeles was then one of few places in the city where blacks could buy homes and operate businesses.
Now, rising property values and gang violence are leading many black families to abandon the neighborhoods where they were born and raised. In the process, South Los Angeles has become one of California's fastest-growing Latino communities.
According to a recent study by a USC researcher, the black population in South-Central Los Angeles declined an estimated 30% in the past decade.
By contrast, the Latino population in that area has increased an estimated 200% since 1980 and demographers predict the 1990 census will show that Latinos have become the community's majority ethnic group.
The Latino population is expected to grow another 214% by the year 2005, according to Focus 2000, a black political research organization. The black population, meanwhile, is expected to decline 23%.
Behind this transformation has been the arrival of perhaps 1 million Latino immigrants--the exact figure is uncertain--as the result of political conflict and economic instability in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico during the last decade.
In years past, many of these immigrants would have settled in established barrios such as East Los Angeles, Pico-Union and Pacoima. Rather than crowd into these neighborhoods and pay the increasingly high rents, some of the immigrants have become urban pioneers. They have moved into South Los Angeles, breaking the informal barriers that have divided the city ethnically for decades.
All along Central Avenue, and in communities like Green Meadows, Athens and Watts, the influx of thousands of Latino immigrants like Anaya has created racially mixed neighborhoods. Sometimes, the grandchildren of Southern sharecroppers live side by side with peasant and working-class families from Mexico and Central America.
On South Main Street and other major thoroughfares, storefront Latino evangelical churches have formed next to black Baptist churches. Soccer rivals basketball and football as the sport of choice at South Park and other neighborhood playing fields.
Four South Los Angeles high schools that had overwhelmingly black student populations in 1980--Fremont, Jefferson, Jordan and Manual Arts--now have Latino majorities. The change is most dramatic at Fremont, where Latinos constitute 70.4% of the student body as compared to only 3.9% in 1980.
In Watts, most Latinos left after the 1965 riots, a six-day upheaval that made the community a symbol of black anger. Today, immigrant families have reestablished the Latino colony that Mexican railroad workers founded there at the turn of the century.
Across the street from Brembry's barber shop, Mexican salesmen barter with customers at Cesar's Place No. 2, a used-car lot. Next door, Anaya, the Salvadoran notary public, advertises assistance with "seguros de auto"-- car insurance.
Even some of Brembry's customers are now Latinos. "They sometimes come in and get a haircut," Brembry said. "But the conversation is limited because they don't speak much English. I should buy me a book so I can be able to speak Spanish."
James H. Johnson, a UCLA geographer who has studied black flight from South Los Angeles, said he believes the area has passed a historic turning point in its transition from a black enclave to a predominantly Latino community.
"I think parts of South-Central are already a (Latino) barrio," Johnson said. "As the remaining older blacks die off, I don't see younger blacks buying their houses and grabbing hold of these communities."
Some Latinos have bought and refurbished properties on 107th Street, in the shadow of South-Central Los Angeles' world-famous landmark--the Watts Towers.
Maria Garcia, 37, and her husband, a plastics-factory worker, bought two houses on the street in 1980. They paid $41,000 for the houses which, like the towers, were dilapidated and in need of repair. Garcia said she watched helplessly as a gang of local thugs routinely assaulted the camera-toting tourists who visited the landmark.
Ten years later, the neighborhood has made a comeback--the towers are being refurbished and the thugs appear to be gone. More Latino families have joined the Garcias on 107th Street, and the houses are worth about $100,000 apiece.
"We bought the houses with the idea of staying one year and then selling them so we could move someplace else," Garcia said. "But now we're already used to Watts."