L.A. Aims to Jazz Up Central Avenue

Times Staff Writer

Nearly half a century has passed since Central Avenue slipped out of the limelight as the jazz mecca and heart of African American Los Angeles.

Long gone are the bustling eateries, shops and nightspots that had lined the once-vibrant street, then known to locals as simply “the Avenue.”

The famed Dunbar Hotel, which was host to such musical greats as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne in the 1930s and ‘40s, currently houses low-income residents and social service agencies.

The neighborhood now is predominantly Latino and poor, with careworn storefronts, most sporting signs in Spanish.

But city officials hope to recapture some of the Avenue’s past glory with a $500,000 revitalization plan approved by the Community Redevelopment Agency.


The Central Avenue Action Plan, unveiled at a news conference Friday, is designed to help small-business owners spruce up their buildings and lure new merchants and service providers to the storied thoroughfare between 18th Street and Slauson Avenue.

It will provide money to mom-and-pop business owners to put new facades on their stores; promote more park space and cleaner, safer streets; and add neighborhood amenities similar to the Central Avenue Jazz Park, a tiny but popular plot of green space with a small play area and an outdoor stage.

The plan “provides a roadmap to the future” while still honoring the Avenue’s historic past, City Councilwoman Jan Perry told a gathering at the jazz park Saturday. Perry’s 9th District incudes the redevelopment area.

Saturday’s two-hour music fest, a free concert to celebrate Black History Month, gave city officials a chance to publicize the revitalization plan. While a crowd of several dozen African Americans and Latinos listened to the live music, city officials handed out pamphlets.

Perry, holding a large plaid umbrella to shield herself from unseasonably strong sunshine, said she would go door to door with city workers and volunteers Monday to explain the program to store owners.

City officials also plan to provide incentives for new businesses, especially restaurants, retailers and movie theaters, to move into the area.

They cite a recent survey by the CB Richard Ellis commercial real estate firm that found residents of the area must travel up to 10 miles to get the goods and services they want, spending about $400 million.

That was never a problem in the first half of the 20th century, when Central Avenue’s black-owned businesses included Wilkins Piano Academy and the Eagle newspaper, as well as nightclubs and restaurants.

Things began to change on the Avenue during the early 1960s, when the elimination of race-based housing restrictions prompted many prosperous blacks to move out of the neighborhood. The Watts riots in 1965 hastened the exodus.

What Perry envisions for the next transformation, she said Saturday, is a revitalized neighborhood that is “culturally abundant.”