Alvin Dunn lives in a bright yellow house on East 112th Street and he sits on the front porch when the weather is fine. His lawn is neat and green, and there are two lines of rosebushes along the walk leading up to his front steps. Some of these have been here as long as he has, which is close to 60 years, and came from the same place he did, which is New Orleans. When they bloom, he says, those old roses are something to see.
Alvin Dunn is 92. He learned how to play the piano just six years ago, started taking Spanish classes around then too and was driving his 1986 Nissan up until last year when a cyst on his foot, which is just beginning to heal, laid him up. He lost his wife 14 years ago but his family still lives in the area. He has three grown sons, five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson, but don't press him on all the names of the grands and the greats, he says, because sometimes, why, they blur just a little.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Railroad name -- An article in Saturday's Calendar about Alvin Dunn, a longtime resident of South-Central Los Angeles, incorrectly identified his former employer, the Southern Pacific Railroad, as the South Pacific Railroad.
He came to California because he had heard there was no segregation and much opportunity. "Now that is one thing that was told to me that was not true," he says now. "But you know, life has a way of working itself out."
He married the one girl he ever loved -- fell for her hard and sudden at a dance in New Orleans even though he had known her for years. He spent 37 years working as a chef-cook on the South Pacific Railroad, accident-free, according to a plaque on one dining room wall, although there was that time a scalding pot slopped over into his shoes and burned him pretty bad.
He was the first black man to buy a house on this stretch of 112th Street and, as the neighborhood grows increasingly Latino, he may well be the last to stay.
Nowadays, most people speak of South-Central Los Angeles with fear and anger, frustration and resignation. As if it is what it is and can never change. But Alvin Dunn has seen it change, once, twice, four times over. He has lived through two riots and many nights of gunfire, seen the blocks of his street go from all white to black to its current Latino majority, has watched Los Angeles grow from a downtown that didn't impress a young man from New Orleans all that much to the second-largest city in the nation.
Over the years, Dunn's three sons, who left the neighborhood years ago, have tried to get him to move in with them or at least nearer to them. "Every day," Dunn says, clasping his hands together. His hands are long and graceful, the skin of the fingers worn soft and almost printless. "Every day they come in here and say, 'Dad, you got to get out of here.' "
Sitting with Dunn, listening to his stories, you can peer through windows of words into certain places, certain years. It is a perilous pastime -- look up and the sun has slanted completely away and four hours are gone. Los Angeles is still explained best by the stories we tell one another, so it is a revelation to find someone with so many rooted in one place.
Alvin Dunn has done nothing more profound than live a fine and peaceable life in a society that went out of its way to make that difficult. But as you listen to him talk, many things become clear. His stories help explain why so many of us are here, in this particular city, how we came and why we stay, and why more people arrive every day.
"I look back on my life and I can't believe the wonderful things that have happened to me," he says and his wide-open smile makes it clear that this is true. He has a voice worth listening to, deep and glimmering like the sound of a cello, and an easy way of talking.
Dunn's mother was a seamstress, one of the best in town, he says. She did work for everyone, from rich ladies to -- Dunn searches for a polite term -- "good-time houses." Dunn tells stories the way a good seamstress sews, quick and steady, the voice like the needle moving with a plan of its own, the colors working themselves together until, like magic, the thing is done. "Now, sister," he says, in answer to what seems a simple question, "that is a story for you."
Gary, Dunn's youngest son, laughs ruefully when told his father is a good talker. "I've been listening to those stories for 50 years now," he says. Gary is a mechanical engineer and lives in Carson; he sees his dad several times a week, every week. "The thing is, I've never met a person who didn't like my father. All my life my friends have adopted him. He's never got a frown or a downturn attitude. People just like to be around him. Listening to him talk. "