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The History of South Central Los Angeles and Its Struggle with Gentrification

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From the displacement of Native peoples to the enforcement of Jim Crow, the history of U.S. land policy and practice is a history of inequi¬ties. Gold rush-era Chinese workers and Blacks fleeing Southern racism were barred from California’s housing market and segregated to particular communities. After the Great Depression, the federal government backed mortgage lending as a route to homeownership and wealth accumulation, but redlined minority communities. White flight to suburbia left the urban core starved for investment and government services. Predatory lending and the 2010 foreclosure crisis further depressed rates of homeownership in the inner cities. Today, housing deeds still bear restrictive language such as “no lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by a person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race.” The restrictions have lost their legal standing but their spirit lingers in more nuanced ways.
Ch. 1: Legacy

City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

"We are not against development, we're against luxury development," exclaims Donna Liseth Quintanilla. 19-year-old Quintanilla is a co-founder of the South Central Dreamers, a collective of youth activists from South Central Los Angeles who use the arts and activism to fight against gentrification displacement and the school-to-prison pipeline. Wiser than their years, the South Central Dreamers are a part of a larger multicultural cadre of organizations and activists that are skillfully fighting gentrification and the imminent transformation of South Central Los Angeles.

The combination of rising property values, the lack of rent control, dozens of new condo developments, Metro's expansion, and the Los Angeles Rams moving to nearby Inglewood, is contributing to South Central Los Angeles' struggle with gentrification. The historically African-American neighborhood has become increasingly Latino over the last four decades. As famous as South Central is from films, music and popular culture over the last half-century, most Angelenos and others around the world do not comprehend the legacy of the area and how important it is in the larger story of Los Angeles.

"We know much more, it seems, about ancient cities and dead civilizations — the chalices the elders drank from or the raiments warriors wore — than we do about day-to-day life in 'South Central Los Angeles,' beyond the term, beyond the trope," wrote Los Angeles native journalist Lynell George in 2006 for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

This is a favorite quote of Los Angeles County Urban Planner Jonathan P. Bell. Bell has worked the last dozen years in South Central as an embedded urban planner intent on fighting gentrification. Bell is constantly out in the field working with residents and stakeholders. "As a South Central planner," Bell recently said, "I'm doing my part to support the anti-gentrification resistance. I make connections among advocates and bring people together. I help advocates interpret dense municipal ordinances and land use policies." Bell empowers citizens by offering any material, intellectual or infrastructural support they need. Before spotlighting some of the current battles, it is important to discuss South Central's geography and history to show how it got here.    

The Birth of South Central

The roots of South Central Los Angeles trace back to the beginning of the 20th Century. The neighborhood that is now known as "Historic South Central" includes the area between the Harbor Freeway on the west, Central Avenue on the east, Washington Boulevard on the north and Vernon Avenue on the south. Though this pocket is about 40 square miles, the name South Central became an umbrella term for Black Los Angeles, a much larger area, stretching all the way to Watts and Compton on the south and west across the 110 freeway into Inglewood and the Crenshaw District. Technically the term South Central was only geographically accurate for the rectangular parcel of the Central Avenue corridor, but as history has shown, neighborhood names in popular culture are not always historically or geographically accurate. A similar misnomer applies to Boyle Heights and pockets of East Los Angeles like Maravilla, Belvedere and City Terrace.

"South Central Dreams." | joey zanotti/Flickr/Creative Commons
"South Central Dreams" mural  | joey zanotti/Flickr/Creative Commons

Historian Steve Isoardi writes about how the term South Central came to be in his book "The Dark Tree." "Lured by an expanding economy and the prospect of jobs, the relatively low cost of real estate, a mild climate, and a seemingly less-overt racism," Isoardi states, "African Americans began moving to Los Angeles in large numbers after 1900. For the next forty years their numbers doubled every decade and by 1940 represented slightly more than 4 percent of the total population."

Right from the beginning of this period, the city was already segregated because of racially restrictive housing covenants written into property deeds. These covenants were not only enforced through the property deeds. The banks and insurance companies also indirectly enforced them through the practice of denying loans, insurance policies and other financial services for African Americans that attempted to sidestep covenants. This practice is better known as "redlining," and it continued well after the covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948.  

One of the only areas not covered in these restrictive covenants extended south from Downtown Los Angeles along Central Avenue all the way to Slauson. As Isoardi states, "By 1940, approximately 70 percent of the black population of Los Angeles was confined to the Central Avenue corridor and relied upon the Avenue to meet all of its social needs." Because this stretch was along the southern section of Central Avenue, the term "South Central Los Angeles” gradually entered the local vernacular by the 1920s. "South Central" became a blanket term for all of Black Los Angeles from Central Avenue to Watts to the Crenshaw District.

The African American population doubled because of the Second World War. The need for workers in the aerospace industry and other wartime jobs caused the United States government to make it illegal for government contractors to discriminate in hiring. The opening of these jobs lured thousands of African Americans to Los Angeles in the 1940s. Lonnie G. Bunch, a longtime historian with the Smithsonian Institute, writes, "Between 1942-1945, some 340,000 Blacks settled in California, 200,000 of whom migrated to Los Angeles." Nonetheless, because of the restrictive covenants, there were very few places where they could live.

The Lee family in front yard of home near Central Avenue and 21st Street.
A family (the Lee family) in front yard of home near Central Avenue and 21st Street. | Shades of L.A. / LAPL

As Professor Paul Robinson writes, "In the wake of Executive Order 8802, hundreds of thousands of blacks migrated to Los Angeles to work in the newly opened defense industries. Subsequent overcrowding in Los Angeles' 'Black Belts' caused the housing crisis to become the number-one issue facing Los Angeles' black community during this time." Bunch explains further that, "The greater the Black population grew, the more tightly enforced were the restrictive housing covenants. Though the Black community doubled in the 1940s, it remained confined to pre-war boundaries."

The Great Migration

This period is known as "the Great Migration."  It was also the heyday of Central Avenue as a Jazz District and the West Coast Harlem. Numerous eateries, music venues and nightclubs like the Lincoln Theater and Club Alabam stretched from Pico to Slauson from the 1920s to the early 1960s. The Dunbar Hotel at 43rd and Central was where jazz luminaries like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young would stay when they visited Los Angeles. Hollywood's biggest celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles would regularly visit the Avenue, and so did the notorious mobster Mickey Cohen. Despite the storied musical and cultural history, the lack of housing and overcrowding made for poor living conditions.

Audience watching a performance at Club Alabam, S. Central Avenue and 42nd Street, 1945. Identified are: actress Lillian Randolph (right of center), dancer Prince Spencer, Clarence Moore, Tillie Culison, Clehue McGee.
Audience watching a performance at Club Alabam, S. Central Avenue and 42nd Street, 1945. Identified are: actress Lillian Randolph (right of center), dancer Prince Spencer, Clarence Moore, Tillie Culison, Clehue McGee. | Shades of L.A. / LAPL

In 1948, the court case "Shelley v. Kraemer" rendered the restrictive housing covenants illegal. Gradually through the 1950s, the southern section of Los Angeles, from Watts and west towards Inglewood and the Crenshaw District, became increasingly African American. Moreover, during this era, West Adams, Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills gradually became middle class and upper middle-class African American areas. Perhaps no writer has chronicled South Central as much as the Watts-born poet, journalist and screenwriter Wanda Coleman. Born in 1946, during the height of the Great Migration, Coleman documented the area in hundreds of poems and essays written from the mid-1960s to her untimely demise in November 2013.

In an extended essay from 2005 titled "Dancer on a Blade," Coleman ruminates on her South Central childhood. "I grew up in the South Central of the Fabulous "50s," Coleman writes, “which was in relentless flux as a steadily increasing Black population demanded more access to financial, health, and recreational facilities and an end to housing along racial lines."

Coleman remembers that her family was the first Black family on their street. Coleman attended Gompers Junior High and graduated from Fremont High School in 1964. She celebrates the archipelago of "Black Los Angeles," made up of Fremont, Jefferson, Jordan and Washington High Schools. As the '60s went on, Crenshaw, Dorsey and Manual Arts High Schools were also included in this.

Professor Josh Sides has closely documented the last century of Black Los Angeles over the last two decades. His accounts corroborate Coleman's about the rising social status of African Americans in the city in the mid-century. As the 1950s gave way to the early 1960s, neighborhoods were desegregated, and several of the leading Black churches were beginning to wield political influence in civic affairs. "By the early 1960s," Sides states, "African Americans had significantly transformed their status in Los Angeles. Their protests were widespread, their demands were well known, and their political influence — if still uneven — was undeniable. Most important, African Americans participated in daily urban life in ways that would have been impossible two decades earlier."

Chief Parker and Interstate 10

Chief Parker and his officers, 1954.
Chief Parker and his officers, 1954. | Shades of L.A. / LAPL

Sides also notes that "Few issues troubled African Americans in postwar Los Angeles more than the complete deterioration of their relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department." The reputation of the LAPD became especially notorious under the reign of Chief William Parker from 1950 to 1966. Parker is infamous for many reasons. He is credited with not only promoting racial profiling and aggressive policing but also with harassing businesses and patrons along Central Avenue so frequently that his policing methods led to not only breaking up Central Avenue's vibrancy but the 1965 Watts Riots.

One illustration of Parker's totalitarian tactics is cataloged by Mike Davis in "City of Quartz." "Under Parker — a puritanical crusader against 'race mixing' — nightclubs and juke joints were raided and shuttered," writes Davis. "In 1954 John Dolphin, owner of Los Angeles' premier R&B record store near the corner of Vernon and Central, organized a protest of 150 Black business people against an ongoing 'campaign of intimidation and terror' directed at interracial trade. According to Dolphin, Newton Division police had gone so far as to blockade his store, turning away all white customers and warning them that "it was too dangerous to hang around Black neighborhoods." It was episodes like this that culminated in the 1965 Watts Riots.

Another issue that stifled the spirit of the community was the California State Highway Commission's campaign to build both the 110 and I-10 through the heart of South Central Los Angeles. The path for Interstate 10 was especially troubling because it cut through a 500-foot-wide section of West Adams known as "Sugar Hill." "Sugar Hill" was considered one of the most beautifully well-kept neighborhoods of African Americans anywhere in America. Josh Sides explains further that, "Believing that the selection of this route was at best insensitive and at worst racially motivated, a group of West Adams residents immediately formed the Adams-Washington Committee, choosing several delegates to present the community's grievances to the commission in Sacramento."

Sides also notes that African Americans in Santa Monica opposed the proposed route through their area too because it bisected the small black community in Santa Monica, similarly in the enclave near Pico Boulevard around 26th Street. The great Los Angeles African American poet Kamau Daaood was born in this section of Santa Monica in 1950.  

Ultimately, Interstate 10 was built through both neighborhoods destroying hundreds of houses. A similar process happened 10 miles east of Sugar Hill in Boyle Heights, where five freeways intersect, including the 10. This destructive process of freeway construction through neighborhoods of color not only occurred in Los Angeles but also Minnesota, the Bay Area, Maryland, Louisiana, Washington, Texas, New York and Massachusetts. Accounts of the devastation of freeway construction in neighborhoods of color across Los Angeles can be read in both Eric Avila's "The Folklore of the Freeway" and Helena Maria Viramontes' "Their Dogs Came With Them." Eric Avila's 2014 book spotlights the creative strategies urban communities across America used during the 1950s, '60s and '70s to document and protest the damage highway construction wielded on countless neighborhoods.

ts through L.A. with the Governor, Miss Santa Monica Freeway and the GM of the Automobile Club of Southern California. |
Santa Monica Freeway cuts through L.A. with 1962 dedication ceremony. | UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

"The spate of racial violence that erupted in American cities in the mid-1960s," Avila declares, "shocked white Americans who had insulated themselves within exclusive suburban enclaves, willfully ignorant of inner-city conditions of racial poverty. After riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, 1965 became America's 1848, sparking more stringent demands for racial equality and drawing the world's attention to America's latest race problem. In the depths of inner-city despair, highway construction added insult to injury, fanning the flames of racial unrest."

The 1965 Watts Riots and Civil Rights Movement

As Avila insinuates above, issues like highway construction combined with frustration with the LAPD, the brewing unrest of racial inequality and inner-city poverty contributed to the outbreak of six days of rioting in Watts in August 1965. The catalyst for the riots occurred on August 11 on a warm night when a highway patrol motorcycle officer pulled over a young African American man named Marquette Frye for speeding.

A large crowd assembled around the officers as they attempted to arrest Frye, and the unrest began. Further details on this episode have been written about in countless books, but as Martin Schiesl writes, the six days of rioting "covered about 46 square miles and left thirty-four persons, mostly black, dead; 1,032 wounded, and 3,952 arrested. Property damage amounted to $40 million, with over 600 buildings damaged and destroyed." Over the next few years, several similar riots occurred across America, like the 1967 Detroit Riots. These episodes further galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement and connected with the creative branch of the Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement.

Several Buildings on Fire during Watts Riots
Buildings on Fire, Watts Riots | LAPL

Following the summer of 1965, Watts and South Central Los Angeles became a hotbed of the Civil Rights Movement. Organizations like the Studio Watts Workshop, the Watts Writers Workshop, the Watts Towers Arts Center, Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, the Black Panthers and US Organization utilized both the arts and direct action as methods to raise awareness and attempt to create social change. These groups and many others were highly active in the community well into the mid-1970s. The 1973 documentary film “Wattstax” captures the magic and optimism of this period. 103rd Street in Watts was one of the epicenters. During this period, the lively artistic and musical spirit that was originally on Central Avenue started moving west to streets like Normandie and Western and eventually to Crenshaw and Leimert Park.

From about 1965 to 1975, the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles flourished in Southern California. It continued beyond 1975, but economic conditions and public policy in the late 1970s and the rise of Reagan in the 1980s led to less funding for the arts and more difficult circumstances for artists and musicians. Economic restructuring in the manufacturing sector and other changes in the economy made jobs scarce.

Josh Sides explains that "the mid-1980s represented the nadir of South Central’s already tumultuous history. Fueled primarily by the wave of plant closures, black unemployment and poverty rates rose throughout the decade. An analysis of income distribution in black Los Angeles between 1970 and 1990 revealed the polarizing effects of the decline in low-skilled and semi-skilled employment among blacks." These conditions also contributed to the rise of the Crack Cocaine economy. Crack offered a quick fix with a high profit margin. Crack was introduced on the South Central streets in the early 1980s and caught on quickly.

The devastation of crack and the rise of gangs across South Central Los Angeles is now old news. For many voyeurs around the world, the film and musical depictions of this stereotype became their image of South Central Los Angeles. Even though much of the greater South Central area includes well-kept, small, single-family homes, many still associate it with films like "Menace 2 Society" and musical groups like NWA. The Uprisings of 1992 further exacerbated these preconceived notions, and the stereotypes only became more prevalent as the 1990s went on. While the world saw South Central one way, the area was transforming demographically.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters at a press conference in South Central LA in 1996. She's holding up a taped package that shows how big a kilo of cocaine is. | Rick Meyer/Getty Images
Congresswoman Maxine Waters at a press conference in South Central LA in 1996. She's holding up a taped package that shows how big a kilo of cocaine is. | Rick Meyer/Getty Images

The Rebirth of South Central

Beginning in the 1980s, South Central started becoming more Latino. Josh Sides writes that during the 1980s, "the Latino population of South Central increased by approximately seventy-eight thousand, whereas the black population decreased by almost seventy thousand. Remarkably, the census of 2000 revealed that the Latino population of South Central (58 percent) finally outnumbered the black population (40 percent)." A variety of factors contributed to this. A sizeable percentage of African Americans sold their homes and moved to the Inland Empire and other locations like Palmdale, Lancaster and even Las Vegas for larger, less expensive and newer houses and better employment opportunities.

Writer Dana Johnson discusses African American families moving to the Inland Empire in her recent book of short stories, "In the Not Quite Dark." In addition to black families leaving South Central, the emerging Latinization of South Central was not only incoming Mexican residents but also included Salvadorans. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Belizeans and others from Central and South American moving into the area.

This more diverse demographic mix made the Rodney King Uprisings of 1992 even more complicated than 1965. Many of the same frustrations from 1965 remained, but the 1992 event involved more multicultural citizens and a much larger geographic area. Many historians have called 1992’s events in Los Angeles, "a postmodern bread riot."

Similar to following 1965, many efforts were made following 1992 to rebuild South Central. There were some new projects, but perhaps one of the best-known changes happened to the name "South Central," itself. In 2003, the city of Los Angeles unanimously voted to change the name South Central to South Los Angeles. This effort was aided by the rise of other smaller micro-neighborhood names like Chesterfield Square, Canterbury Knolls, Athens on a Hill, Green Meadows and Vermont Square among others. There are also areas of Unincorporated Los Angeles County in the vicinity like Florence-Firestone, Athens-Westmont and Willowbrook.

Signs Showing South Central Branding: South Los Angeles, Furniture & Decorative Arts, Menlo Park
Washington Blvd. and Central Ave., 2009. Signs Showing Los Angeles neighborhood branding: South Los Angeles, Furniture & Decorative Arts, Menlo Park. | Laurie Avocado/Flickr/Creative Commons

Specific districts within the greater South Central area like Angeles Mesa, Leimert Park, the Crenshaw District and Watts had always existed, but the renaming of South Central to South Los Angeles inspired these other smaller enclaves within the greater area to rebrand themselves with more specific names. Opinions on these changes vary across the board, but some older citizens were happy to discard the South Central name because of the negative connotations that many associated with it. Other changes that have altered the community's character include the rise of charter schools. There are now dozens of more schools, many of which did not even exist 15 years ago.

Contemporary Community Organizers

All this history brings South Central Los Angeles to this current juncture of gentrification and displacement. As USC continues to expand north and south on Figueroa, Metro expands across the Crenshaw District into Inglewood and the Los Angeles Rams return to town and begin building their new stadium in Inglewood, the greater South Central Los Angeles area is facing new issues that further complicate the long-standing ones. Many different organizations in the area are working hard to stop gentrification and displacement; Community Coalition is one of the most established. There is also Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement. These coalitions include black and brown residents who are united to improve their community and counteract the forces of gentrification. SAJE is where the young activist Donna Liseth Quintanilla of the South Central Dreamers interned three years ago while still in high school. This experience changed her life and politicized her when she was 17.  

Quintanilla attended Jefferson High School and West Adams High School and has an incredible command of the public policy issues currently facing South Central. I met with her briefly along Central Avenue one late September afternoon, and she spoke eloquently about many key issues facing the area, like the remodeling of Rolland Curtis, the renovation of Jordan Downs, the new soccer stadium being built at Exposition Park and the lack of affordable housing across South Central Los Angeles. Quintanilla's vocabulary is far beyond her years, exercising terms like the AMI, (Area Median Income). Currently attending Trade Tech, she wants to transfer to UCLA to become an Environmental Justice major and then get her Masters at UCLA in Urban Planning. The Guatemalan-American Quintanilla also works in close collaboration with L.A. County Urban Planner Jonathan Bell.

The rainbow over the fountain symbolized hope for South Central. | Jonathan P. Bell (1100px
The rainbow over the fountain symbolized hope for South Central. | Jonathan P. Bell

Bell met Quintanilla through the extended South Central L.A. network during the early days of the vigorous community-driven protest against The Reef. The Reef is a redevelopment project on Washington and Hill that many long-term South Central residents oppose. Bell says, “Donna was out on the front lines pushing back — hard! She was equally active on social media raising awareness about the looming threat of gentrification in South Central. Fearless, undaunted and only 19, Donna is a true resistance leader against South Central gentri-hipsterfication, and she represents the Latina youth leadership at the heart of today's social justice movements.”  There are many other young activists like Quintanilla.

49-year-old Skira Martinez is the owner and founder of Cielo Gallery on Maple near 32nd Street in the heart of Historic South Central. Martinez is a close cohort of Quintanilla, and she will never call South Central, "South Los Angeles." She feels the new name erases history, and many in her community would agree with her. Martinez works closely with three generations of activists from 17 to 77.

Martinez has her finger on the pulse of what's happening in the neighborhood. She believes in a lifestyle that supports her neighbors. She spends her money in the community, supporting yard sales, thrift stores, street vendors and small family businesses. Furthermore, she has opened her gallery/living space as a site where the immediate community "uses Cielo in very practical ways and in the ways that they choose to rather than me creating and offering programs, workshops, etc. that I feel they need or want. The community has created space within Cielo to organize, come together in celebration and to make use of the resources within Cielo for homework projects or to simply store a vehicle or vending equipment in the parking lot. Cielo tends to be whatever it needs to be both to the immediate community and to surrounding communities."

The Reef on S. Broadway. | Jonathan P. Bell
The Reef on S. Broadway. | Jonathan P. Bell

Martinez has worked closely with other local activists including the South Central Dreamers, the LA Tenants Union, the Solidarity House of the South on Central Avenue and groups like the Youth Justice Coalition, SAJE and the Community Coalition. She tells me that, "It is the autonomous movements/collectives and community members that are doing the most profound and important work in my community — they are the community — and put people over profit. Collectives like Solidarity House of the South are community-based/led and are pushing against gentrification in a way that includes education, healing and keeping cultural practices alive. They understand that the fight against gentrification is directly tied to a history of stolen land and resources. Dreamers of South Central have been very active and present in direct actions against gentrification and in gathering and sharing important information."

"The LA Tenants Union has started a local chapter in South Central, and this is great as their mission is to strengthen tenants' political power through education and advocacy amongst tenants themselves," Martinez says. "It is us — the community itself — that must and can make the difference by resisting and refusing to negotiate and be pacified into believing that the gentrification of our community by white art spaces, the 'nice new white neighbors' and eventually corporate interests."

"South Central is being surrounded and swallowed up by USC," she says. She has similar concerns about, "the Metro and plans for the Olympics because they are all including a massive collaboration of corporate interests." Martinez believes in putting people over profit. Well versed in the area's history, she understands the economic and cultural patterns that have shaped Los Angeles. "Communities of color have never been able to choose where we live," she declares, "and wherever we do live and create community, we have always lived under the threat of displacement."

Martinez and Quintanilla are not against development; they are against luxury development that displaces and leaves out the residents who have always lived in South Central. The history shows how displacement has already fractured the community; it is because of this they fight so hard. South Central Los Angeles has always been one of the most important communities in Los Angeles, and it always will be. As Skira Martinez says, "The history of South Central says and shows it all, and as a community, we have no choice but to actively resist by the many means necessary and available. For many, to say that this is life or death is not an exaggeration."

Casa Solidaria del Sur on Central Avenue, a safe space for POC. | Jonathan P. Bell
Casa Solidaria del Sur on Central Avenue, a safe space for POC. | Jonathan P. Bell

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