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Glimpsing a Vanished Civilization

January 26, 1992|ROBERT A. JONES

"Here," she says, and hands me the photograph. "This one gives you the idea."

The photograph shows a night scene from sometime in the 1940s. A group of black men and women are celebrating along Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The same Central Avenue that we know now, if at all, for drive-bys, empty storefronts, and quick, furtive movements of pedestrians.

The scene in the '40s photograph is different. This sidewalk is crowded with customers headed for nightspots, all dressed to the nines and having a swell time. Nowhere in this scene do you sense danger. In the background there is a jazz joint, the Club Alabam. And down the middle of the street rolls a car with a sign pasted to its side. The sign says, "Welcome home Lionel Hampton."

The "idea" that Carolyn Kozo wants me to get is an idea about Los Angeles. That the city contains a past that can startle and surprise. A past that, seen in photographs, serves as a measure of all that's been lost.

Why is it, do you think, that L.A. so ignores its history? A mystery. For whatever reason, memory seems not to matter here. The past has no currency.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Movies have a history, for example. People seem to remember everything about movies and the making of movies. For a lot of reasons, the movies matter.

But the city itself? No.

And in general, your squalid neighborhoods have much less history than those with a higher tone. At the very bottom of the squalor lies South-Central. For most of us, South-Central's past begins with the riots in 1965. Before that, it remains utterly history-less.

Thus the appeal of Carolyn Kozo and her project. A senior librarian at the city library, Kozo wants to establish South-Central's past and she wants to do it with photographs.

It began when Kozo discovered that the library's photographic collection of 2.5 million pictures contained virtually no photographs of blacks in Los Angeles. If you came to the library and asked for a picture showing how blacks lived here in the 1920s or '30s, the library could not oblige.

So Kozo and a volunteer group known as Photo Friends began to tack notices all over South-Central. Please bring your family albums to the Central Library, the notices said. We would like to copy what you've got.

That was four months ago. Families came by the dozen, and the library chose about a thousand photos from the tens of thousands offered. Photos from the '20s, '30s and '40s. What they revealed was a civilization that has disappeared as surely as the Mayans.

There is one photo, for example, that is inscribed "hayride to Manhattan Beach." And it shows just that. A hayride proceeding across the belly of Los Angeles to the beach. You could do that, back then, without worry.

Another shows a wedding taking place on a front lawn in Watts. About 50 people have assembled in their neighborhood and the scene contains an air of almost pastoral peace.

The missing threat of violence is not all you see. Everywhere you look in this world, there were touches of elegance. Men never appeared on the street without a jacket and tie. In fact, everyon e dressed for their public outings. Commercial blocks were filled with malt shops, small groceries and haberdasheries. Shoppers in wools and silks strolled the sidewalks, chatted, and strolled some more.

Easily the most spectacular photographs are the night scenes of Central Avenue which, during the 1940s, challenged New York as the capital of jazz. About 40 clubs attracted huge crowds of black and white customers every night until the 2 a.m. closing time. You see them crowded around tiny tables at the clubs, drinking highballs, soaking up the music.

All photographs are deceptive, and this collection certainly hides some of the social crimes of the times. That hayride, for example, ended at a segregated beach because, back then, every beach was segregated.

But still, you cannot look at these photographs without sensing the enormity of the loss. They show a world in South-Central that was intact, whole, full of small businesses, women's clubs, jazz joints, kids on tricycles, neighborhood churches, safety.

All gone, that world. I could drone on about the moral lessons here but let's not. Let's just say that these photographs show an amazing place that once was part of Los Angeles. A place that doesn't exist anymore.

All we've got now are the photographs. Some history remembered. Thanks to Carolyn Kozo and her friends, we've saved that much, at least.

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