Rediscovering L.A.’s Lost Neighborhood of Bronzeville

A new map charts the forgotten landmarks of a ghost town in the middle of the city
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On the outskirts of the city you may find crumbled streets and abandoned communes, but there are ghost towns, of a sort, hidden in urban centers as well. One such is the lost neighborhood of Bronzeville, an enclave of L.A.’s black community that overtook Little Tokyo during the years of World War II, only to vanish soon after.

It went like this: After the attack on Pearl Harbor in March of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, opening the internment camps where 120,000 Japanese-Americans (around 37,000 from L.A. County alone) were forcibly detained. Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo was left vacant.

Residents of Little Tokyo prepare for the mass evacuation, 1942

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

RELATED: This Is What It Looks Like when an Entire Ethnic Community Is Forced to Relocate

Around the same time, black migrant workers from the South were pouring into the city, many to work in the defense industry. Unable to live in most neighborhoods due to segregation and facing housing shortages in predominantly black areas like Watts and South Central, they quickly filled the empty space left by L.A.’s Japanese American community, crowding into Little Tokyo. There they opened restaurants, hotels, breakfast clubs, brothels, and a newspaper. Little Tokyo’s historic Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple was transformed, during those years, into the Providence Baptist Association.

Patrons at Shepps’ Playhouse, a Bronzeville nightclub at 1st and Los Angeles Streets, ca. 1945

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Mayor Fletcher Bowron talks to a Bronzeville family in front of an abandoned Shinto shrine during a 1944 cleanup effort in the overcrowded district

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945, and by the end of that year, the majority of internment camp inmates had returned to their old neighborhoods. This, combined with the loss of war-related jobs, resulted in the rapid dissolution of Bronzeville.

In early 1946, as Bronzeville was nearing the end of its short existence, sax legend Charlie Parker decided to stick around town after a stint in Hollywood, taking a residence at the Finale Club. After a show in July, Parker—a severe heroin addict—crashed at the Civic Hotel, and then, not long after, turned up in the lobby wearing nothing but socks to make a phone call. When a guest later reported smelling smoke, Parker’s mattress was found on fire, and the police dragged him out, unconscious and in handcuffs. He spent seven months in Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

The newly-named Civic Hotel, formerly the Miyako Hotel, in 1942

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Bronzeville likewise declined. When racial housing covenants were ruled unconstitutional in 1948, black Angelenos were at last free to move elsewhere, and the final remnants of Bronzeville began to fade. Little is left today, though a few landmarks can still be found, if you know where to look. Urban rambler Eric Brightwell (the local hero behind L.A.’s map of Metro-accessible bars) has chronicled the history of the neighborhood and also mapped its forgotten landmarks. Most have been torn down, but some—including the second location of the Finale Club—remain. (To view the map on mobile, scroll to the right and tap the full-screen icon.)

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From April 27 to May 3, a series of installations and events in Little Tokyo will commemorate the neighborhood’s Bronzeville days.

Thomas Harlander is a staff writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. He recently wrote: This L.A. Suburb Is the Birthplace of the Greatest of All Avocados

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