In the heyday of Central Avenue, a Friday night visit to one of the thoroughfare's renowned jazz clubs often meant a tight squeeze among a crush of patrons, especially if Duke Ellington was playing.
"Man, they'd get crowded," recalled 70-year-old Corney White, a retired metal crafter who remembers the main attractions of the once-bustling business and entertainment district, considered the heart of the city's black community in the 1940s.
"If you came to L.A. and hadn't come to Central Avenue, you hadn't lived," he said. "It was the place to go."
But Central Avenue's vibrancy has long since faded, and its once-hopping clubs, with names such as the Last Word, the Downbeat and Alabam, were demolished years ago.
The vacant lots where the nightspots once stood, however, are expected to play a crucial role in efforts to return the avenue to some of its former glory.
Construction is now under way to convert the dirt lots on either side of the famed Dunbar Hotel at 4225 Central Ave. into four-story commercial and residential complexes fashioned in the same style as the neighboring facility built in 1928.
Officials with the Dunbar Economic Development Corp., which is spearheading the project, hope the new structures and the hotel--now an apartment complex--will be the cornerstones of a larger revitalization effort targeted at the surrounding nine-block area.
"We envision the creation of a viable commercial strip with a wide variety of goods and services," said Anthony Scott, the development corporation's executive director.
Keys to the group's plan, Scott said, are the renovation of the handful of historic buildings remaining between Jefferson Boulevard and Vernon Avenue and the placement of markers highlighting the area's past.
"The history of this community is important to preserve," said Scott, who hopes the effort will convert the area into a tourist destination and boost the local economy.
The avenue started to slide in the 1950s when segregation laws and practices were loosened and black businesses and entertainers were welcomed in parts of town once closed to them.
The Central Avenue make-over began six years ago when $4.5 million was spent to refurbish the Dunbar, the renowned home-away-from-home for such entertainers as Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. The building is now home to 73 apartments rented mostly by low-income seniors.
Phase Two of the renaissance began last December when ground was broken on the new residential and commercial complexes that together will cost $8.8 million to build.
Part of that cost includes renovating the 66-year-old former headquarters of Golden State Mutual Life, the first black-owned insurance company west of the Mississippi River. The Golden State building will be incorporated into the complex built on the Dunbar's south side.
Together, the new structures and the one-time insurance office will provide 41 apartments for low-income tenants and roughly 4,000 square feet of commercial space. The project will also provide such amenities as a Head Start preschool, child care, a library and a computer center.
Watching morning traffic from a chair outside the hotel, Dunbar resident Corney White called the project long overdue but still a "good idea."
"It'll never be like it was, but it will be better," he said.
Gonzalo Beltran, 27, is too young to remember Central Avenue's glory days firsthand, but the owner of El Tigre Meat Market across the street from the Dunbar nevertheless welcomes the redevelopment.
"It'll changes things," he said. "It's going to pick up business out here."