13 historical sites that made Central Avenue the cultural lifeline of South L.A.

A yellowed collage of photos from Central Avenue life past and present
(Alex Tatusian)

South Central Avenue was once a thriving hub for Black Angelenos. Here’s a look back at an important piece of civic history in L.A.


Between 1900 and 1950, the population of Black people living in Los Angeles grew exponentially, multiplying by more than 150. Thousands flocked to build a life on South Central Avenue—a major thoroughfare stretching from downtown L.A. through Watts, Willowbrook, Compton and down to Carson. “The Avenue,‘’ as it is affectionately known, was an epicenter for the West Coast jazz scene, entertaining and accommodating the most prominent jazz acts of the 1930s and ‘40s. And it became an epicenter for Black life in L.A. .

More than music, Central Avenue remains an important part of understanding how Black Angelenos not only survived but thrived in a segregated city.

Many of the core buildings that gave life to 20th century South Central are no longer standing or are used for the same purpose, but understanding their legacy remains as an important piece of L.A.’s civic history and the potential of its future.


A man sits in his 5th-floor apartment window overlooking the historic Dunbar Hotel sign
London Carter, then 59, sits in his fifth-floor apartment window at the Dunbar Hotel, on South Central Avenue, built in 1928, on May 31, 2013. Construction workers at the time were painting and refurbishing the building and artists were restoring old murals in preparation for it to be turned into senior housing.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Map locating Dunbar Hotel at 4225 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles

Dunbar Hotel (4225 S. Central Ave.)

In 2020, Kareem Abdul Jabbar called the Dunbar Hotel, “a beacon of African American hope.” Built on the corner of 42nd and Central, the luxurious and elegant four-story, 115-room Dunbar Hotel was the heartbeat of Central Avenue. It was originally called Hotel Somerville when it opened in 1928 and was constructed exclusively by Black laborers to be a high-class hotel for Black travelers who would be denied at white-owned hotels across town. The hotel was owned by Dr. John Somerville and his wife, Dr. Vada Watson Somerville, the first Black man and Black woman to graduate from USC’s dental school.

The hotel housed Club Alabam, where many jazz greats and big bands like Billie Holiday, Art Tatum and Gerald Wiggins, Duke Ellington’s band and the Count Basie Orchestra, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington and dozens of others.

In 2019, the hotel was reconstructed to be Dunbar Village, affordable apartments for seniors, retaining its glorious facade.

Two people in costume standing listen to music under an umbrella during the 12th Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival
Paul Thoranhill and Linda Sims listen to music during the 12th Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival in Los Angeles on July 29, 2007.
(Stefano Paltera / For The Times)


Map locating Central Avenue Jazz park at 4222 S. Central Avenue, Los Angeles

Central Avenue Jazz Park (4222 S. Central Ave.)

Central Avenue Jazz Park hosts part of the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, an annual festival celebrating jazz’s life — both past and present — stretching six blocks. The pocket park has a built-in concrete stage used for youth performances with a colorful ceramic tile mural as a backdrop. Robin Strayhorn was commissioned in 2005 to honor musicians who performed at the neighboring Dunbar Hotel and other jazz clubs in the 1930s and ‘40s, including Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus. She completed the panels with local high school students. In 2015, the mural expanded to represent the present Latinx population in the neighborhood.


Map locating Local 767, Musicians Union at 1710 S. Central Ave. in Los Angeles

Local 767, Musicians Union (1710 S. Central Ave.)

Facing discrimination, eight musicians representing an array of genres, started Black Local 767 union in 1920. It became the second-largest Black union in the American Federation of Musicians. The group purchased a house at 1710 Central Ave., which functioned as an office, clubhouse and rehearsal space.

The union helped find work for emerging Black musicians who were barred from protections and resources under the all-white Local 47 union. Pianist and arranger Marl Young and others pushed for the organizations to unite, and so they did in 1953.

In 2000, Buddy Collette told The Times about the role he played in merging the unions in 1953.

“I knew that was something that had to be done,” Collette told writer Bill Kohlhaase. “I had been in the service, where our band was integrated. My high school [Jordan High School] had been fully integrated. I really didn’t know anything about racism, but I knew it wasn’t right. Musicians should be judged on how they play, not the color of their skin.”



Map locating Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles

Thomas Jefferson High School (1319 E. 41st St.)

Thomas Jefferson High School served a predominantly Black student population. The Avenue taught students just as much as the curriculum, fostering a generation of jazz greats including Etta James, Barry White, Roy Ayers, Alvin Ailey and so many more. The fourth-oldest public high school in Los Angeles is said to be responsible for graduating the most prominent jazz musicians than any other, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.

A drummer sits at his set in front of a small crowd seated a dim jazz club
Lorca Hart of the Lorca Hart Trio performs on drums at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles on Oct. 16, 2010.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Map locating Blue Whale Jazz Club in Los Angeles.

Blue Whale Jazz Club (123 Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka St. #301)

While Blue Whale Jazz Club didn’t open until 2009, it retained the spirit of the Avenue and was a piece of a resonant jazz scene in L.A. Nestled on the third floor of Onizuka Plaza in Little Tokyo, the spot was a hub for innovative and up-and-coming acts. Flying Lotus, Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonists Walter Smith III, Kamasi Washington and many other L.A. jazz veterans have all graced the quaint space.

The club faced a tough blow from the COVID-19 pandemic. With an inability to pay rent due to stalled business and an unrelenting landlord, the club closed its doors in 2021.


Map locating Henrietta Beauty School in Los Angeles

Henrietta Beauty School (4309 ¼ S. Central Ave.)

After facing discrimination when applying to beauty schools in the L.A. area, Hazel Dell Williams opened Henrietta Beauty School in 1930. It’s credited as the first cosmetology school west of the Rocky Mountains for Black pupils specializing in Black beauty needs. Williams named the school after her friend and major investor Henrietta Kent. While the Central Avenue location no longer stands, the school remains a family business and operates as the Universal College of Beauty in Leimert Park.


Map locating Lincoln Theater at 2300 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Lincoln Theater (2300 S. Central Ave.)

This venue was nicknamed the West Coast Apollo for featuring the same acts as its Harlem counterparts from Charlie Chaplin to B.B. King. The theater opened in 1927 catering specifically to the Black audiences and held concerts, talent shows, live theater and vaudeville acts. The festival space, built for over 2,000 audience members, featured a large stage and orchestra pit.

In 1970, the theater was converted into a mosque and is now home to the Iglesia de Jesucristo Ministerios Juda, but it remains on the National Register of Historic Places.

beige office building stands with cards driving past
The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was built in 1949 by famed architect Paul Williams.
(Christina House / For the Times)

Map locating Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building at 4261 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building (4261 S. Central Ave.)

The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded by William Nickerson Jr., Norman Oliver Houston and George Allen Beavers Jr. in 1925 as one of the first companies to offer life insurance to Black Angelenos. The company started as a rented one-room office on Central Avenue. Despite South-Central being a middle- to-upper class neighborhood, obtaining life insurance was a hassle due to discrimination. As a popular commodity to an underserved population, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company grew to become one of the nation’s largest Black-owned businesses in 20 years. In 1949, L.A.-born architect Paul Revere Williams designed the new Golden State Mutual building located at 1999 W. Adams Blvd.

A man and woman stand in front of a record store display in a black and white image
John Dolphin and his wife, Ruth Dolphin, at Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop.
(Michael Ochs Archives)

Map locating Dolphin's of Hollywood near Central and Vernon avenues in Los Angeles.

Dolphin’s of Hollywood (near Central and Vernon)

John “Lovin’ John” Dolphin opened one of the first Black-owned record stores in 1948. Dolphin’s of Hollywood attracted folks from all over L.A., as he hosted the live “Dolphin’s of Hollywood’’ on-air radio show out of the shop, interviewing recording artists and holding meet-and-greets and autograph signings. Dolphin saw music as a unifying force and is credited as an innovator of the “crossover music” concept, seeing that “white kids would pack the Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop in the all-Black neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles, nightly.” Dolphin saw an opportunity marketing Black music forms to white audiences.

Opening the store was just the beginning of Dolphin’s career in the music industry; he went on to own a record label and become an R&B producer.

Dolphin was killed by a disgruntled singer in 1958, and in 2015, Dolphin’s grandson Jamelle held a stage production titled “Recorded in Hollywood” detailing his life. The intersection of Central and Vernon was renamed to Dolphin’s of Hollywood Square in his honor in 2016.



Map locating 28th Street YMCA at 1006 E. 28th St. in Los Angeles.

28th Street YMCA (1006 E. 28th St.)

Pools were segregated in L.A. until 1931, so the local YMCA was a point of pride for Black Angelenos. The community had to fundraise $200,000 for the facility and received assistance from the Rosenwald Fund and St. Louis entrepreneur Annie Malone.

Paul Revere Williams was also the architect behind the four-story Spanish Colonial Revival-style building. The building featured two community meeting rooms, administrative offices, a gymnasium, a pool, a cafeteria, and dormitory-style rooms. It easily became the site of important political meetings and social gatherings.

The building has now been converted into 49 affordable studio apartments for transitioning homeless youth.

black and white photo of Black Panther headquarters on 41st and Central Avenue after the shootout with police, 1969
This photo by Guy Crowder, “Black Panther headquarters on 41st and Central Avenue after the shootout with police, 1969,” is part of California State University Northridge’s African American photography collection..
( California State University Northridge Institute for Arts and Media)


Former Black Panther L.A. HQ (4115 S. Central Ave.)

Central Avenue was homebase to the first Black Panther Party chapter outside of Oakland. The L.A. chapter occupied the two-story building with a library in which it held political education classes and meetings and organized party events such as its free breakfast program.

On Dec. 9, 1969, the headquarters became the site of a special LAPD and SWAT operation to serve the Panthers arrest warrants: Officers bombed the building that was home to many Panthers and resulted in a shootout with more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition exchanged. More than 350 officers stormed the headquarters with 18 people inside, The Times reported on the 50th anniversary of the building being destroyed.

Jeanette Bolden smiles holding fresh-baked sweet potato pies in front of 27th Street Bakery Shop
Jeanette Bolden, a former Olympic gold medalist, owns 27th Street Bakery, which was started by her grandparents in 1956. The shop is known for its fresh-baked sweet potato pies, which Bolden in seen holding here on Sept. 29, 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Map locating 27th Street Bakery at 2700 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

27th Street Bakery (2700 S. Central Ave.)

Hattie and Sadie Patterson from Shreveport, La., moved west in the 1940s, and opened up a restaurant-turned-bakery in 1956, selling cakes, cobblers and other sweet treats to the South-Central community. The family business still thrives three generations later serving up its famous sweet potato pies. Weathering uprisings and the COVID-19 pandemic, current owner Jeanette Bolden-Pickens told The Times in 2020 that retaining a “taste of tradition” is what’s helped them remain a Central Avenue staple.


Map locating Hugh Gordon Bookshop at 4310 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Hugh Gordon Bookshop (4310 S. Central Ave.)

Hugh Gordon Bookshop was opened in the writer and activist’s honor after his death in 1946. Gordon left specific instructions that the money from his estate was to be used for a bookshop to be managed by fellow activist Adele Young. It was one of the first bookstores in Los Angeles and had three different locations on Central Avenue during its lifespan. The shop was a hub for Black intellectuals, specializing in books about Africa and Black Americans. Charlotta Bass, civil rights activist and owner, publisher and editor of the California Eagle, which was also based out of South-Central, was a known visitor of the bookshop.