CityDig: A History of Central Avenue (Just in Time for CicLAvia South LA)


CicLAvia is hosting another of its community enriching journeys this weekend, this time in South Los Angeles. Seeing as the route includes Central Avenue, which, since it stretches from 1st street in downtown all the way over to Slauson in South-Central, is one of L.A.’s most historically significant streets, we felt it imperative to shed light on two maps that hint at the magic of what was once called “the Beale street of the West Coast” and occasionally “Harlem West.”

Central Avenue is truly a story of bad turned into way-better-than-good. Originally the product of racial covenants that kept black people from buying and renting in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, a rather small African American community (less than 40,000) managed to settle along the narrow strip surrounding Central Avenue during the teens and twenties. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the black population lived within a few blocks of Central, creating a city within a city. Included here is a Baist atlas sheet showing the Avenue’s early blossoming around 12th Street (heading south) in the 1920s (above, click here to see a larger map), and the second Sanborn atlas sheet shows the area down around 42nd Street at the tail-end of the Central’s glory in the 1950s (below, click here to see a larger map).

Central Avenue, Sanborn Atlas sheet 469, Volume 4, 1950

While Central Avenue eventually became known as the epicenter of the West Coast jazz scene and a place to find all types of entertainment, it was also a place where the entrenched racism of the world outside was neutralized as its black residents thrived in every occupation under the Southern California sun. The mere existence of a black community in Los Angeles was referred to as “the negro problem” in local rags, but on Central Avenue a slew of businesses—law offices, medical and dental clinics, insurance agencies, newspapers, book stores, automotive repair shops, pharmacies, music stores, haberdasheries—were black owned and operated. The place had a certain panache, and on Thursday nights when the locals joined in the revelry, the place was downright magical. People got dressed to the nines for evenings out, and the music was as great as will ever be heard in this country.

The first national convention of the NAACP took place on Central Avenue and when the five floor, 115-room Somerville Hotel (later renamed the Dunbar) was completed in 1928, there were deluxe accommodations for black celebrities like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jack Johnson, or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who made the hotel their home away from home when traveling out west.

Famed nightclubs appeared first down in the 2000 blocks: the Jungle Room, the Kentucky Club, the Cabin Inn, and the grand Lincoln Theater at 2300 (which was called “the West Coast Apollo”). By the 1940s, many of L.A.’s African Americans were working in the War effort, which moved the action up toward the 4000 blocks. Clubs (Club Alabam, the Ritz, Glenn’s Backroom, Casa Blanca, Brothers, and Lovejoys), restaurants (Elite Cafe, Rose Waffle house, Lunch Top, and Ivie Anderson’s Chicken Shack), and a Dolphins of Hollywood record store that never closed were just a few of the draws.

As far as the jazz/ R&B offerings on Central Avenue, the list of performers reads like the genre’s Hall of Fame: Kid Ory, Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Johnny Otis, Big Jay McNeely, T-Bone Walker, Little Esther Phillips, Wynonie Harris, Hampton Hawes, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Dinah Washington and even Charley Parker for a while.

You won’t spot Nat King Cole while cruising South L.A. this weekend, but now you have a great history to share with the guy or gal riding alongside you.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.