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CULTURE | 125 Years | WHAT LOS ANGELES GAVE THE WORLD
| THE PROMISED LAND

The last stop for the big-city sojourns

December 03, 2006|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Special to The Times

OPPORTUNITY and justice were always roving targets for African Americans from the South, something they tried to pin down everywhere they went -- Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia. L.A. was the last of the big-city sojourns.

Starting in the late 19th century but accelerating dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s, blacks came to Southern California with a belief, refined over generations, that this was perhaps the best and last place in the country to create a new and improved social order and grow a sense of permanence and belonging that they could never quite cultivate elsewhere. Alien as it might have felt to some, a westernmost city without tradition or history was an ideal setting for people looking to trump history at last.

They didn't put aside the past entirely. Like many immigrants, black Southerners who settled on the Eastside and in South-Central set up businesses and institutions and organizations they'd had at home. A large contingent from New Orleans populated churches, restaurants, barbershops, social clubs and Mardi Gras observances. For years, things were good, but far from utopian: Many blacks got their front lawns and picket fences, but racial covenants and de facto segregation marred the promised land ideal. Still, it was better than the South. Eventually, though, the vicious circle of poverty and disenfranchisement with which blacks are all too familiar began closing in: Watts exploded in frustration with the 1965 riots, South-Central again in 1992. Opportunity and justice were, and in many cases still are, maddeningly out of reach.

For many younger blacks, born and raised here in the 1960s and 1970s, L.A. offers a double vision: on the one hand, a local sensibility; and on the other, a Southern consciousness that grounds us in the certainty of where we are really from. (To be from Los Angeles, as even native Angelenos know, is always to be from somewhere else.) But as the years pass, that consciousness becomes an increasingly smaller base from which to navigate a city that's getting wider and flatter, where poor blacks isolate anew in the inner city, while the more fortunate get out.

Though everyone inherits the constrictions of history, some of us are like rays extending from a single point into L.A. space that grows ever more obscure and infinite. It's difficult to know whether Los Angeles is even now more promising than promised, a credible realization of the dreams that those before us unpacked with the assumption that they'd never have to be boxed up again -- these were to be seasonless dreams in a city to match.

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