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What It Is. (And What It Was.)

Lynell George is a senior writer for West. Her work has appeared in Ms. and Essence, as well as in the essay collection "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

It is my mother’s memory, not mine. Consequently, it is a recollection that doesn’t feel observed so much as absorbed. But I was there, and so, too, my father: the three of us launching ourselves into a day of optimistic house-hunting.

It is 1964; I am nearly 2; “New Baby” is on the way. We are in a black Chrysler Windsor with Batman tail fins and pristine whitewall tires, rolling through the manicured, green quiet of Inglewood and Morningside Park, a list of potential properties in my parents’ hands. My mother remembers the day as sunny. “Pretty, even,” she always stresses.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 15, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Club location: The caption for a 1955 photograph of Black Dot McGee in West magazine’s Oct. 8 article on South-Central Los Angeles misidentified the cross streets where the Pacific Town Club was located. It was at Adams and Montclair, not Adams and 24th.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 8 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
The caption for a 1955 photograph of Black Dot McGee in the article on South-Central Los Angeles (“What It Is. [And What It Was.],” Oct. 8) incorrectly identified the cross streets where the Pacific Town Club was located. It was at Adams and Montclair, not Adams and 24th.

At the first stop, my parents ring the bell. A man comes to the door, eyes them through a slender crack. They begin by introduction; they reference an appointment. But he breaks off, backs away into the dimness. He says he’s busy, my mother recalls, “that he was watching ‘Perry Mason.’ Then he closed the door.”

That was that. “Watching ‘Perry Mason.’”

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Our next stop is just around the corner, but we’ve barely gotten out of the car and up the front walk before someone down the street yells, “Nigger!”

“I worried about your ears,” my mother has told me over the years. “I wanted to cover them.” But I’ve always known she meant something else. That had never happened in the South, in New Orleans. “I had to wait to come to California . . . to Los Angeles.”

We didn’t end up on that block, ultimately, but just minutes away, on 61st Street--west of Crenshaw, south of Slauson--in a neighborhood, like the previous one, that decades later would come to be known to the world outside as “South-Central Los Angeles.”

That appointment was for later in the day, but we were running a bit ahead of schedule and were already in the area, so we drove by to take a look.

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At first sight, my mother fell in love with the huge, arched picture window, the Spanish stucco and red tile roof that declared, unequivocally, “Los Angeles”; my father, with the long driveway and two-car garage, the yucca plants and assortment of fruit trees. But we couldn’t tour the rest of it--the inside--because of the neighborhood’s restrictive housing covenant, an agreement worked out among lawyers, real estate agents and residents that prevented Negroes (and others of the neighbors’ choosing) from inhabiting the houses that lined those streets.

We would finally see the inside after dark, as the Realtor had suggested. The owner was willing to disregard the covenant, but still, “The fewer eyes the better.”

I don’t remember much about our neighbors there, except for a large family next door--the mother white, the father Mexican American--whose children I played with, rolling down the steep humps of our front lawns over and over and over, fashioning a hurdle out of a palm tree stump. I remember them and the man across the street, who glared if spoken to and kept watch on us from his big uncurtained front window as he performed his calisthenics, a regimen of jumping jacks and toe touches, at all hours.

Not so long after we moved in, in August ’65, my mother’s father arrived by train from New Orleans to get a look at this new house, this “New Baby,” my brother Rocky. My grandfather’s happy journey coincided with motorist Marquette Frye’s unfortunate one along Avalon Boulevard in Watts--a traffic stop that would become the flint for the most devastating urban unrest L.A. had ever seen.

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My grandfather, by nature curious and gregarious, slipped out of the house early one morning, careful not to wake anyone. He found a bus to take him as close to the heat of the commotion as possible. When he couldn’t ride right into it, he walked. He wanted to get to the center.

My grandfather left Los Angeles not long after the worst of the smoke had cleared, changed by what he’d seen--staggered, saddened, sobered. The family next door departed as well, also quietly, as if not to wake anyone, as did others soon after, all around us, house by house by house.

l.a. was supposed to be different, a place of transformation for African Americans journeying from their assorted elsewheres. “Los Angeles was wonderful,” W.E.B. DuBois had touted in 1913 in the NAACP magazine The Crisis. “The air was scented with orange blossoms and the beautiful homes lay low crouching on the earth as though they loved its scents and flowers. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Here is an aggressive, hopeful group--with some wealth, large industrial opportunity and a buoyant spirit.” Yet once they arrived, many found that Los Angeles simply offered a more complex version of racial inequity: discrimination that was hidden, chambered, difficult at first to discern and untangle.

L.A. was supposed to be a paradise, but “South-Central L.A."--less a place than a condition--is where we ended up.

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It is a souvenir of sorts, one that was earned, not purchased. It is my own memory. As the message printed on the back of an airline boarding pass suggests, it is “evidence of the journey.”

I am 8 or 9. My brother is 6. We are strapped into a bench seat in the deep reaches of an air-conditionless tourist van. It is as humid inside as out. The sun is so bright, unblinking, that it feels hostile. We are in Puerto Rico with our parents on a brief summer vacation, to take the sting out of a family funeral.

It is 1971. Our parents are seated in the front of the van. My father is asking the driver many questions about the foliage and the buildings and the history. My mother is training the purring Bell & Howell 8mm on the scenery skidding by. Our tour guide is driving heart-hammeringly fast along the narrow rises of roads; he pieces together his answers with bits of English and Spanish in a rhythm that feels comforting, or nostalgic, like watching a couple slow dance. My brother and I share our seat with two elderly white women, their faces pink and moist from the heat. They are wearing elaborate straw hats with flounces and appliques--smuggled in from another era. For the most part their conversation is a murmur that passes back and forth between them, except when they advise Angel to watch his speed.

What I can tell not from the murmurs but from their gaze is that something perplexes them about us, our family. Words don’t say it, just a lingering question mark in their eyes. Their gaze passes back to front and back to me again.

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“Where are you all from?” one of the women asks.

“Los Angeles.”

“Oh. You mean Watts?”

“No. Los Angeles,” I repeat in a tone as crisp as my pressed white sundress.

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What unsettled me wasn’t the question, but its shadings--less inquiry than indictment. There was a presumptuousness about it. It said she knew. She knew exactly what our lives looked like: the color of our walls, where the decimal point was placed on my father’s paycheck, the grades on my report card, the cars in our garage, the food on our table.

I didn’t know it then, but it was a preview of what was to come.

“Watts” said so much, yet it said nothing.

we know much more, it seems, about ancient cities and dead civilizations--the chalices the elders drank from or the raiments warriors wore--than we do about day-to-day life in “South-Central Los Angeles,” beyond the term, beyond the trope.

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To the outside world, “South-Central” is a blur, a haphazard arrangement of neighborhoods, streets and cities persistently out of focus. It is not a singular, boundary-bound place at all, but many things--a blank spot, a no man’s land, a scapegoat, a demilitarized zone.

I’m not sure when I first heard the term “South-Central Los Angeles.” It came long after “Watts” was a catchall, swapped for the equally freighted “inner city.” But what I do know is that it has always felt artificial, like a straining-to-be-polite place holder for something better left unsaid, in mixed company, anyway.

“South-Central” was more than just a vague place name; it was vernacular. It was a shape-shifter; it was quick and wily; it had legs. It moved east. It moved west, north. For a long time, it was code for wherever it was in the city that black people kept their houses, conducted their business, kicked up their mess--where they happened to pop into frame. I will never forget returning home late one night, tired and despondent after reporting on the ’92 “civil unrest"/"uprisings"/"riots"/"insurrection” (like everyone else, I was searching for something precise, something to call not just the chaos but the rage), and tuning in to a TV reporter doing a stand-up at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, right in front of the May Co. department store. All my life I knew this intersection to be in the Miracle Mile, yet the graphic marked the spot: “South-Central L.A.”

“South-Central” was “down there"--a wave of the hand, south of Olympic, certainly south of the 10 Freeway. Someplace many Angelenos didn’t venture into because, well, what was really there?

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This wasn’t the language that people I knew used to describe their neighborhoods--those we lived in, visited in, went to church in, got our hair done in or simply passed through on a sentimental Sunday drive. We said “Hyde Park” or “View Park” or “Morningside” or “Leimert Park.” There was Baldwin Hills. There was the Crenshaw district. There was West Adams or “near SC.” There was Compton, and Watts proper. And there was “right off Denker.” Or “over there near Imperial.” Or “I live near Second Baptist.” “Oh, he still lives over there on the Eastside.”

I always loved the elegant Places, Drives and Avenues--Cimarron and Gramercy and Nadeau and Florence and, of course, Rimpau. We were specific in our street names, their numbers. There were the big California Craftsmans near 25th and Normandie. There were the bungalows on the avenues just east of Crenshaw, south of Slauson, painted a fantasy of colors--turquoise and Pepto-Bismol pink and the color of new spring grass--a canvas of idiosyncratic self-expression. After all, it was Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, with its ornate ethnic mix, its porous boundaries, its vast and difficult-to-govern space, has long complicated the discussion on race in America. Although there were no Jim Crow laws per se here, housing covenants separated the populace along racial lines, kept private lives a mystery. But despite them, people found themselves living side by side--African Americans and Japanese Americans along the Crenshaw corridor (my mother took weekend ikebana classes near the old Holiday Bowl); African Americans, Jews, Mexicans in Boyle Heights; Italians, Chinese, blacks and Mexicans on the Eastside--coexisting unmediated. That didn’t mean it was Eden, but that also didn’t make it hell.

If you’ve been around here long enough, you get weary of the semantic hocus-pocus. It used to be quite straightforward. I grew up understanding that Los Angeles is a grid. That Main Street is the dividing line between east and west. First Street, the dividing line between north and south.

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“The Westside is anything west of Main, not La Cienega,” Jo Ramsey, a real estate agent, tells me. “Real estate people started that ‘Westside’ mess.” And she would know. She’s been in the business for more than 30 years.

She’s also been around long enough to have witnessed the “block busting” back in the ‘50s, as black Angelenos began pushing up against the confines of covenants, despite threats to their lives and their families’ welfare, and moving into neighborhoods such as View Park and Leimert Park and along the Crenshaw corridor. And with integration, of course, came “white flight.”

“Some of them stayed, but the others, as they say, ‘voted with their feet first.’” Funny, says Ramsey, that in its conception and early years, View Park was known as the mate to Cheviot Hills--yet would later be known as “South-Central Los Angeles.”

Like me, she can’t quite place when she first heard the term, but she knows that within real estate circles it slowly supplanted the less euphemistic “socio-economically deprived.” But we all knew, says Ramsey: “It meant black, it meant Mexican. It meant deprived.”

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What South-Central isn’t, Ramsey can say for certain, is an extension of South Central Avenue. “Oh, no. Everybody knows South Central Avenue is on the Eastside.”

They called him “One-shot Harry,” and he could be found all over--the Eastside and the Westside and everywhere in between, at ribbon-cuttings or a garden party, a luncheon or a swearing-in, maybe a sorority soiree or fraternity banquet, all in the space of one day. They called Harry Adams “One- Shot” because he could get the image in one frame or two. He had to. There was always someplace else to be.

He was one of a small cadre of local black photographers--along with Howard Morehead, Charles Williams, Jack Davis, Bob Douglas--who made it their job to document the day-to-day life of black Los Angeles. It might sound cliched or mundane to the outside world, but for African Americans who lived on the margins of Greater Los Angeles’ consciousness, it seemed no small feat to amass an archive of images that at once acknowledged and humanized. Adams shot for African American newspapers such as the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle--pictures of well-dressed folk on their way to dinner, attorneys on their way to trial, businessmen unlocking their doors on the first day of business, black celebrities or dignitaries on tour. He was known for being there, “right place, right time.” He collected our memories for moments when memory wouldn’t serve correctly.

Those images corresponded with something I knew: the everyday world of my parents and their friends, other teachers and librarians, preachers and insurance salesmen among them, who would stop by our house on 61st Street after work or on the weekend for dinner or a protracted game of Pokeno “for pennies,” and to listen to Ramsey Lewis or MJQ on the hi-fi. They talked politics; they talked disparity, economic and ethnic; they talked about the sorry conditions of the schools up the street, the young men without jobs lingering a little too long on the corner. They felt something slipping away. I’d hear the men’s big voices, muffled some, puzzling it out, long after my brother and I had gone to bed but not to sleep.

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These were moments, like Adams’ workmanlike photos, that I later realized I had taken for granted, once a different image of “inner city” began to block any competing or variegated vision of what it was to be black in Los Angeles. For all of Adams’ copious visual notations from the 1950s into the ‘80s, they could not compete with the new image beamed, it seemed, in a continuous loop around the world. Crack cocaine and its attendant gang violence would serve as new shorthand for “South-Central Los Angeles.” And later, when the fed-up nihilism of gangsta rap assumed center stage, “Watts” finally took a bow and “Compton” stepped in.

1992: L.A. burns again, and correspondents from all corners of the world sweep in to try to answer “Why?” Within five years, post-civil unrest, post-earthquake, post-O.J., as analysts offer up somber postmortems, “South- Central” becomes the ubiquitous metaphor for all that has gone wrong in Los Angeles--all that is untamed, all that is violent, all that is hopeless.

1997: I’m on assignment, tailing a Chilean-born, New York-based photographer, Camilo Jose Vergara. I am gathering words and images for a feature I will write for the newspaper. Vergara is here, he tells me, to document what he calls the “architecture of poverty,” recording some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods’ physical transformation in time-lapse fashion, visiting and revisiting them. He has explored cities such as New York and Newark, Detroit and Chicago, but is interested, he says, in what sets Los Angeles apart from other immigrant destination points, in neighborhoods that are in uncomfortable flux. He has recently finished a book he has titled “The New American Ghetto.”

We are riding around in Vergara’s beat-up rental, swinging through alleys, banging over potholes, both of us trying to tell the story of these streets as they transition from black to brown--almost as quickly, it seems of late, as it takes for a camera’s shutter to open and close again.

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We thunder past pupuserias, chained-up taprooms and antique R&B; nightspots, sidewalk vendors selling bright yellow papayas drizzled with lime and dusted with red pepper. We are somewhere just east of Central Avenue, we’ve pulled up near a preschool or day-care center painted some drab, industrial non-color, save for an awkwardly rendered, perspective-challenged mural featuring the faces of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Marcus Garvey and perhaps a local dignitary or two. Vergara jabs his thumb in its direction.

“That mural doesn’t have anything to do with the people who live here. Why is it there?”

Notebook in hand, pen poised, I can’t write down those words. Instead, I find myself trying to choke back an emotion that I can’t quite sort through, certainly cannot name--fury, sadness, rejection.

“It has everything to do with the people who live here,” I blurt, surprised at how fast, how hot.

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“Not to the people who are here now,” Vergara says, dispensing his arm’s-length assessment in the tone of the sociologist he once was. As for those black residents who remain, by choice or by circumstance, he adds: “Those left behind feel that they’ve been wronged by the system.”

“But,” I say, “it is part of the history of the neighborhood. It is part of what this neighborhood was.” I press, remembering that loud won’t register but emphatic might. “That history is theirs too.”

Before I know it we are arguing, not debating, our words glancing across space, flying by one another. He isn’t hearing me. I’m not hearing him. Instead I’m vibrating with a sense of dread--the feeling of being not just vaguely or imprecisely drawn, but erased, painted over entirely.

Just last month, just blocks away from a city street sign announcing “South Los Angeles” in a cheerful font, I meet up with Lester Sloan, who is settling into a window table at a restaurant on the corner of 32nd and Central, draping his camera bag over the back of his chair. Solecito, or “Bobby’s Place,” he has grown to call it (now that he and Bobby, the owner, have become friends), has become Sloan’s hangout of sorts, a home base, as he has started to get reacquainted with the neighborhood--taking it in day by day, frame by frame--for a California African American Museum exhibition reconsidering “South-Central Los Angeles,” the old intersecting with the new.

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Sloan is Old World elegant in a black cashmere sweater, black slacks, leather porkpie hat. Reserved but not aloof, always looking out of the corner of his eye. The reason for our talk is the exhibition, but soon it is less an interview than a session for comparing notes about what we’ve seen along the way as journalists--trying to get to the center.

As a writer, I know the importance of language, the power in self-definition. Sloan, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1971 as the first African American staff photographer for Newsweek, knows all about the lingering effects of an image. Not just from his point of view as a “consumer of negative images being put out there about this neighborhood,” but, he says, “actually being someone who has contributed to it by running down here every time there’s a riot and photographing burning buildings. Even when you try to make sure they are not misrepresented, usually they are.” He makes a face as if he’s tasted something bitter.

As we talk, young Latinas stroll the block with baby carriages. In the noisy packs of laughing children in parochial school uniforms that push north along Central Avenue, there is just a sprinkling of black faces among the brown. Suddenly we’re treated to a parting glance at the past: an old-school brother, pedaling by on a white bicycle, in a white suit, white hose, patent-leather shoes, stingy-brim fedora and dangling feather earring. “Now that,” says Sloan, “was what Central Avenue used to be.”

We tried for so long to pull ourselves into full view, into focus. Yet now it seems we were never here at all.

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The city has made a turn, and this new community has a new, at least more geographically correct descriptor: In 2003, the City Council voted to replace the stigmatic “South-Central Los Angeles” with “South Los Angeles.” The hope, of course, was that the shift would be much more than cosmetic, like those shiny new street signs.

Sloan plucks out a few optimistic observations from his recent local travels: children, black and brown, playing baseball; Salvadoran and Mexican families opening up their homes to him. But for the most part, he is struck by the tensions, the bitterness. “A lot of [the black] people who were left here--and they were truly left--are angry. They are angry that the Hispanics are here. They tell me, ‘They are stealing our neighborhood.’” As he speaks, I hear those words from not so long ago: “Those left behind feel that they’ve been wronged by the system.”

For some it still comes as a shock, says Sloan, and this surprises him. After all, it didn’t happen overnight. He offers a snapshot:

“I saw these two brothers walking down Central Avenue, over there on 43rd, and I crossed over. I saw them walking, walking. They walked up north. And then I saw them walking back. So I walked across the street and they said, ‘Man, everybody around here speaks Spanish!’

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“I said, ‘Yeah. . . .’

“And they said, ‘Where are all the black people?’

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know . . . uh, Baldwin Hills, Culver City. . . . ‘

“Two brothers looking for work. They said they’d moved here from South Carolina. That they used to live here . . . had moved away and come back.

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“And I said, ‘Well, man, don’t you know? There’s been a huge change.’”

*

The images on these pages and many more will go on view in “Intersections of South Central: People and Places in Historic and Contemporary Photographs,” a collaboration between the Automobile Club of Southern California and the California African American Museum. The exhibition opens Nov. 16 at the museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, (213) 744-7432.


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