Crenshaw Boulevard: Cruising Through the Decades

Crenshaw Boulevard, the 'Shaw', the Crenshow -- though it may lack the global appeal of its Hollywood cousins, the iconic thoroughfare is best known to many Angelenos as the cultural and commercial spine of black L.A. Of course, as is true with many sections of South Los Angeles, this wasn't always the case.

The street was named in 1904 after banker and real estate developer George Lafayette Crenshaw, often remembered for his upscale Lafayette Square community, located just two blocks from the boulevard bearing his name.1 Twenty-three miles in length from its start in Hancock Park to its terminus on a panoramic cliff in Palos Verdes, Crenshaw Boulevard, as architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne once noted, "begins and ends in wealth."2

Prior to WWII, many of the communities intersected by Crenshaw Boulevard were "protected" by housing restrictions that essentially barred non-white ownership. In the 1930s, the Leimert Park development served as a glimmering addition to Crenshaw, attracting a middle to upper class white population, lured by Spanish revival homes and a plaza designed by the Olmsted Brothers.3 In those years many area residents would buy their fresh produce at the Mesa Vernon Market at the corner of Crenshaw and Leimert Place (before 1930 that section of Crenshaw was known as Angeles Mesa Drive) . With the arrival of Ralph's grocers in 1942, and the Broadway Crenshaw Plaza (now the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza) in 1947, the Boulevard quickly established itself as a thriving commercial corridor.

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Mesa Vernon Market at the corner of Crenshaw and Leimert Place ca. 1931| Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Grand Opening on April 25, 1942 at the corner of Crenshaw and Rodeo Rd | Courtesy of USC Digital Archives

The 1937 office building located at 4225/4227 Crenshaw Boulevard (right, south of the liquor store) is known today as Maverick's Flat | Blackstock Negative Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

By the late 1950s and early '60s, many communities along Crenshaw Boulevard became home to middle class Black and Japanese Americans, particularly in the Crenshaw, Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills districts. This middle class, multi-ethnic milieu made the Crenshaw District "a model community for postwar integrationists."4

The nightlife on and off Crenshaw Boulevard also attracted citywide attention by featuring some of the hottest musical acts of the day. The Memory Lane Supper Club (purchased in 1980 by actress Marla Gibbs and renamed Marla's Memory Lane), located just a few blocks east of Crenshaw Boulevard on Martin Luther King Boulevard (previously Santa Barbara Avenue, more on that in a future column), was a Leimert Park favorite. Nat King Cole played the famed supper club just days before his death in 1965. In 1966 John Daniel's opened Mavericks Flat, dubbed the "Apollo of the West." By no means home to just amateurs, it featured acts like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner, and Parliament Funkadelic.5 According to owner John Daniels, Mavericks Flat was a symbol of cultural pride and a beloved L.A. institution:

Everyone came by...It was the kind of high-energy scene that was relaxed enough to attract the Hollywood elite. It was word of mouth. Muhammad Ali would come in and work as the disc jockey, doing his rhymes. Jon Peters would come in. The Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas. Marlon Brando came in and was almost put out because he wasn't wearing any shoes.6

Down the block from Maverick's Flat was Lonnie Simmons' Total Experience, a venue that often hosted funk, soul, and disco acts that were still on their way to stardom. The venue was often considered the R&B equivalent of the Roxy Theatre. Simmons turned portions of the venue into a recording studio, and eventually released the Gap Band's third album, featuring the hit single, "Shake" under his Total Experience Records label (note: the song has been used as the bumper theme for KCRW's "Good Food" in years past).7 Other famed nightspots included Freddie Jet's Pied Piper, The Parison Room, and the Flying Fox. After the clubs closed, patrons of the Crenshaw nightlife often ended the night with a hot meal at the coffee shop located inside the Japanese-owned Holiday Bowl.

Maverick's Flat on MLK Kingdom Parade, 2012 | Image courtesy of leimertparkbeat.com
Exterior of the old Total Experience building | Image: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons
A lowrider crusing Crenshaw Blvd | Image: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons

During the '80s and '90s Crenshaw Boulevard gained notoriety for being an epicenter of car culture, due in large part to music videos by west coast rappers, and films like "Boyz N The Hood," that featured youthful scenes from the "west side", blasting bass-heavy tracks to impress what The Pharcyde called the "Crenshaw Cuties."8 During these years Crenshaw Boulevard was practically shut down by the lowrider parade every Sunday evening. In 2009, however, the LAPD began cracking down on the cruisers, making it illegal to pass the same block twice in the span of six hours.9 Although Skee-lo is best remembered for his one-hit wonder "I Wish," a deeper cut from his first album titled "Crenshaw" is an ode to the '90s scene on the Boulevard (note: the song samples another famous ode to a street, Bobby Humphries' "Harlem River Drive").

In 1989 community activist Torrence Reese, who also organized the Malcolm X Festival in Leimert Park during those years, sought to change the name of the famed artery, between Adams and Florence, to Malcolm X Boulevard. Had his campaign succeeded, there would have been a corner in Leimert Park in which Malcom X Boulevard met Martin Luther King Boulevard. Reese noted: "Malcolm symbolizes a certain ethnic pride, like Cesar Chavez does for people in East L.A., which is why they changed the name of Brooklyn [Avenue] ... symbolism, physical representations of who you are, means a lot in terms of self-esteem."10 The campaign failed to convince residents and an L.A. union between the two beloved leaders of the civil rights era would never see the light of South L.A.

In 2003 the city council attempted to rename a portion of Crenshaw Boulevard after Tom Bradley, Leimert Park resident, and the city's first and only African American mayor to date. Local residents prevented that change from coming to fruition as well.11

It's hard to say what's next for the famed boulevard; with the coming of the Metro's Crenshaw Corridor, some signs of the coming gentrification wave are already being seen in Leimert Park. Sunday nights on Crenshaw may never be the same again, but there is no doubt that the boulevard continues to be a vibrant nexus for the African American community.

Mayor Bradley campaigning on Crenshaw in 1989 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The view from the Crenshaw Blvd terminus at Del Cerro Park in Palos Verdes | Image: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons


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Top: Image courtesy of wikipedia commons
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1 "Los Angeles Street Names" Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1989
2 "Crenshaw Boulevard Comes to a Crossroads" Los Angeles Times, Sept 15, 2012
3 Josh Sides, "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present," Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, 102.
4 Scott Kurashige, "The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles" Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, 249.
5 Cynthia E. Exum and Maty Guiza-Leimert, "Images of America: Leimert Park," Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012, 95.
6 "A Distinction of Note For a Musical Landmark" Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2000
7 http://www.allmusic.com/artist/lonnie-simmons-/biography
8 William Shaw, "West Side: Young Men and Hip Hop in L.A." New York: Simon & Shuster, 2000, 225-26
9 "Showdown on the Shaw: The Uncertain Future of Lowriding's Infamous Strip" Lowrider Magazine November 1, 2009
10 "Leimert Park: Malcolm X Festival Now At Leimert Park" Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1995
11 "A School, and Maybe a Street, For Cochran" Los Angeles Time, February 21, 2006

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