A trip through time to Historic South-Central Los Angeles
January 24, 2011
'The Green Book,' a guide for black travelers first published in 1936, offers a glimpse of a vibrant Historic South-Central Los Angeles scene that some still recall, some hope to revive.
I took an excursion into Historic South-Central Los Angeles last week, using an old tour book that in its day was an essential tool for black visitors to L.A. and many other cities.
"The Green Book" is an artifact. First published in 1936, it was meant to aid African American travelers in their journeys across the segregated U.S., by listing places where black people were welcome.
"It has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable," the 1949 edition proclaimed in its introduction.
"The Green Book" was the creation of a black postal employee from New York, Victor H. Green. Now it's a collector's item, though you can download a copy from the Internet. With two pages of L.A. listings in hand, I headed to the place that was then a gleaming and affluent capital of black culture, to see the old landmarks and seek out anyone who might remember the neighborhood's glory days.
My first stop, I decided, would be the old Basket Room at 3219 S. Central Ave.
I'd heard about the Basket Room and the surrounding streets from R.J. Smith, the author of "The Great Black Way," an excellent history of Historic South-Central in the 1940s.
In Smith's account, South-Central's diverse cast of characters comes to life: Jazz musicians like Duke Ellington visiting writers like Zora Neale Hurston, who came out to California to earn a bit of money writing screenplays. It also has names that have now faded to history, such as the "baby-faced" wrestler known as the Black Panther.
L.A. neighborhoods were segregated then, and black people of all economic levels "got thrown back into their own community," Smith said. "The jazz musician knew members of the church, and the pastor was friends with a great civil rights leader."
Smith told me that a few years back he'd visited the site of the Basket Room — also known as Jack's Chicken Basket — and found the lyrics of a Cab Calloway song painted on a wall outside: "A chicken ain't nothin' but a bird."
I didn't find those words, but I did see a 6-foot-tall plastic chicken — the old building is now a "pollería" selling freshly slaughtered chicken to a mostly Spanish-speaking clientele.
Walking farther south, I reached the imposing brick building of the historic Dunbar Hotel, which is listed in "The Green Book" twice, as both a hotel and a beauty parlor.
My last visit to the Dunbar was in 1990, not long after its reopening as an apartment complex for seniors. Back then, I'd wandered through the lobby. But now all the doors were locked. Outside I found, leaning against one of its old storefronts, Wiley Ross.
"When I was going to school here there was only Orientals and a few Gypsies and some Italians," said Ross, 62. "All the Spanish people were downtown. .... Now it's nothing but Spanish people."
Ross remembered many of the old businesses mentioned in "The Green Book," including restaurants such as the Pig and Pat. Back then the streets were thick with pedestrians, he said. "Down there was Hollywood's — that was a broadcast station," Ross told me, pointing toward the corner of Vernon and Central avenues.
John Dolphin operated a record store there called "Dolphin's of Hollywood" and hosted a radio show from his storefront. "That used to be the corner," Ross told me. "You could find anything you wanted there."
When I reached Vernon and Central, I found it dominated by fast-food restaurants, with only a pair of metal sculptures — of a guitar and a saxophone — to memorialize the past.
But Lloyd Robinson, 73, remembered the old Central Avenue with rich detail when I struck up a conversation with him outside a doughnut shop. Once a star tackle on the Jefferson High football team, he'd grown up in the nearby neighborhoods in the 1940s and '50s.
"The streetcar was running up and down this street," he said. "It was a nickel, two pennies for a transfer. They had haberdashers and shoe stores. B & B was where that filling station is — they sold nice clothes.
"I'd go to the Lincoln Theater" at 23rd and Central, he continued. "I saw Johnny Otis, Little Esther [Phillips], the Dominoes. At that time they had a disc jockey out here called Hunter Hancock. He brought entertainers to the Lincoln."
As we talked further, a picture emerged of a less complicated, safer and seemingly self-reliant age.
"People had gardens and they had their own chickens," he continued. "We had to kill our chickens on Saturday." All-black teams of police officers from the nearby Newton Station walked the beat, he remembered.
"Everybody was happy then because people were working," Robinson said. "Didn't nobody break into your house. You'd put the key under the rug, leave the money in the milk bottle for the milkman."
The 1965 riots marked the end of that age. At about the same time, the death of segregation across the U.S. brought an end to "The Green Book" guide, just as its authors had foreseen many years earlier.
"There will be a day sometime in the near future when … we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States," the authors wrote in 1949. "It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please."
I'm pleased to report that the locals haven't forgotten South-Central's history. Even some of the newer residents know it, including 23-year-old Omar Elgabry, whose family owns the chicken market that occupies the former site of the Basket Room.
"We learn about the history from our older customers," Elgabry said, including one man who came to show the place to his teenage grandson. "They say there used to be lines here three blocks long."
Now Elgabry has a dream: He wants to open his own chicken restaurant at the site of the old Basket Room. "I've been trying to do research about this place because I want to bring it back to what it used to be," he said.
If Elgabry realizes that dream, he'll pay homage to South-Central's past and help keep it alive too. If he's lucky, he might even be listed one day in a guide book for travelers now truly free to go where they please.
I've been inspired by radiovolume's excellent posts. I hope this article will contribute something good to the conversation! I'm doing a research project on African American history in Los Angeles right now, so I thought I'd share something related to that. I can vouch for the sources used in this article; they're the good stuff. R.J. Smith's book is a great combination of excellent (ethical) journalism, oral history research, and an enjoyable writing style, and the Green Book itself is such a fantastic primary source. :)