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Boulevard to the Past

Forum Focuses on Central Avenue, Once the Heart of Black Los Angeles

May 09, 1997|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

History does not die when buildings are torn down or when storefronts call out in different languages, having surrendered to changing times.

Other monuments remain, looming quietly inside garages and on dusty closet shelves. Photographs, letters, school annuals and souvenir books hold history as faithfully as any building.

At the Dunbar Economic Development Corp., a search is on for such ordinary items that tell the story of an extraordinary street: Central Avenue.

The work is part of the "Vernon Central Community History Exhibit," a project designed to chronicle and preserve the history of Central Avenue.

"My goal always was to tell the total story of what Central Avenue was like from the '20s to the early '60s," said Anthony Scott, executive director of the development corporation. "It was a thriving community."

Beyond the street's fabled jazz clubs, the exhibit will highlight its other aspects--prosperous businesses, schools, civic organizations, community figures and churches that made the street the heart of black life in Los Angeles for decades. The exhibit will also include photographs and other memorabilia, maps, oral histories and an online digital archive system.

Organizers are appealing to the public to bring memorabilia to a free public forum on Central Avenue at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Dunbar Hotel, said assistant project manager Michael Betz. The forum, one of a series of programs leading to the opening of the exhibit this fall, will include community residents, scholars and musicians, Betz said.

"It will be a very interactive forum," he said.

Betz has already started gathering the pieces of history from past and present residents, churches and civic groups. And his search has turned up a few jewels: an original handwritten Langston Hughes poem written in 1928 and addressed to the youths of the area, and three yearbooks from Jefferson High School that include photos of U.S. diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche.

Central Avenue began its metamorphosis long ago. The Dunbar Hotel is one of the few remaining landmarks that bears witness to that era of black history. Many of the African Americans who lived that history have since died or moved to other areas of the city, scattering their memories and mementos across the miles. The Central Avenue area is now 75% Latino, Betz said.

Yet some things transcend race, Scott said. When the mayor and the tour buses and dignitaries stop by the Dunbar Hotel, he said, black and brown residents alike know they are part of something special--especially young people.

"They realize they're not just in any neighborhood," Scott said. "We get a whole new level of respect."

Betz acknowledges, though, that the change in demographics means that he has had to work harder to locate those who know the history. But his work is paying off.

At the home of 84-year-old Mary L. Sanders recently, Betz was greeted by six faithful members of Our Authors Study Club, a group founded in 1945 and devoted to the study, promotion and preservation of black history.

Their club's history has been lovingly kept, stored in a shed in Sanders' backyard. There, Betz finds an unexpected bounty: scrapbooks filled with black and white photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings, stainless-steel file cabinets packed with photos, club records, and even stories on black history written by children decades ago.

"How far back does this go?," Betz asked, his head buried in the drawer of a file cabinet.

"Oh, that goes back to 1945," Sanders said.

"This is going to be a gold mine for us," Betz said.

He takes notes, promises to return--with help--and then asks the women to tell others about the exhibit.

Scott maintains that history "can be a catalyst for revitalization," and the exhibit fits squarely into the development corporation's plans to revitalize a 10-block stretch of Central Avenue.

In addition to renovating the Dunbar Hotel, the corporation last year opened Somerville Place I and II, mixed-use apartment buildings which include a Head Start program, a community room and computer center.

To mount the exhibit and related activities, the Dunbar is relying on assistance from the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, USC and the California Council for the Humanities.

The exhibit comes at a time when interest in the history of Central Avenue is burgeoning, said Greg Hise, a USC urban historian who has assisted with the project.

"It's just a recognition that this is a part of the city that is important for understanding the history of Los Angeles--particularly questions of race and space," he said.

Interest among scholars is also fueled by a growing awareness of what is not known about the area.

"Over time, people gravitate to those historiographic holes," he said.

One such "hole" turned up recently when about 40 graduate students in Hise's urban planning class created maps of Central Avenue. Divided by decades, the large maps include property values, the location of businesses, photos and other information.

The students' research discovered that women once owned 30% to 40% of Central Avenue properties--an element that should be researched further, Hise said.

"We're trying to grab [the history] before it disappears totally," Betz said. "It's a very inspiring history. The more the community knows about it the more they will be inspired."

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