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A Happening Corner in a Changing City

An Editor's Note

October 08, 2006|Rick Wartzman

Ask people to identify the most iconic intersection in L.A., and you're apt to get the same response: Hollywood and Vine. But I'd like to posit an alternative about 15 miles south: Florence and Central.

It's a curious choice, I'll admit. Because this corner sits in South Los Angeles, it remains "a blank spot, a no man's land" for most city residents, as Lynell George writes in her elegiac essay on the stereotyping of people and place ("What it Is. [And What it Was.]," page 14).

But you'd be hard-pressed to find a point on the map that better captures so many facets of L.A. over the years: fast food and the movies, agriculture and car culture, defense contracting and the rise of the service economy. It's all right there, like the layers of Troy.

Carl Karcher began operating his first hot dog cart at Florence and Central in 1941, giving birth to his Carl's Jr. empire. At Benjamin Hardy's bike shop, motorcycle mavens say, two of the coolest machines ever to appear on film were fashioned: the choppers ridden by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider."

Yet the most significant thing about Florence and Central is that this was where Goodyear Tire in 1919 built a 158-acre facility--the biggest factory in the West--on what had been a giant cabbage patch and the adjacent Ascot Park Speedway. Goodyear also erected an on-site textile mill to make tire cord, providing an important stimulus for the then-fledgling California cotton industry.

Within a decade, Goodyear's 3,200 L.A. workers were cranking out nearly 3 million tires annually, feeding the region's growing appetite for automobiles. In the 1940s, the plant aided the war effort.

Eventually, though, Goodyear found itself buffeted by broad economic forces largely outside its control. In 1979, the year the company announced it was closing the factory, manufacturing employment in the metropolitan area reached its apex--964,900. Today, the number stands at less than half that: 467,000.

The shutdown of the Goodyear plant was a particular blow to the African American community--yet another "part of the industrial geography of the black middle class that's disappeared," says historian Josh Sides, author of "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present."

Initially, plans were drawn to replace the Goodyear factory with low-income housing--a development hailed at the time as a "unique" alliance of black and white leaders. But that idea fell apart, and the intersection is now home to a U.S. Postal warehouse. The enormous structure is surrounded by a string of small factories and other businesses, many of them Latino-owned.

With their Spanish signage, they are a mark of the vicinity's latest transition and, for me, a reminder of what Florence and Central ultimately symbolizes: a city forever in flux.

Today, we begin a new feature called A Day In, which replaces our Sunday Punches page. Each week, Jessica Gelt will explore a neighborhood, giving you a taste of the area and tips on what to do there. Picking where to make her debut wasn't easy. So Jessica elected for something we all might try more of: She poked around right outside her own door--or, in this case, our door here at The Times.

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