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What It Is. (And What It Was.)

Lynell George remembers South-Central Los Angeles

October 08, 2006|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer for West. Her work has appeared in Ms. and Essence, as well as in the essay collection "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

It is my mother's memory, not mine. Consequently, it is a recollection that doesn't feel observed so much as absorbed. But I was there, and so, too, my father: the three of us launching ourselves into a day of optimistic house-hunting.

It is 1964; I am nearly 2; "New Baby" is on the way. We are in a black Chrysler Windsor with Batman tail fins and pristine whitewall tires, rolling through the manicured, green quiet of Inglewood and Morningside Park, a list of potential properties in my parents' hands. My mother remembers the day as sunny. "Pretty, even," she always stresses.

At the first stop, my parents ring the bell. A man comes to the door, eyes them through a slender crack. They begin by introduction; they reference an appointment. But he breaks off, backs away into the dimness. He says he's busy, my mother recalls, "that he was watching 'Perry Mason.' Then he closed the door."

That was that. "Watching 'Perry Mason.'"

Our next stop is just around the corner, but we've barely gotten out of the car and up the front walk before someone down the street yells, "Nigger!"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Club location: The caption for a 1955 photograph of Black Dot McGee in West magazine's Oct. 8 article on South-Central Los Angeles misidentified the cross streets where the Pacific Town Club was located. It was at Adams and Montclair, not Adams and 24th.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 8 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
The caption for a 1955 photograph of Black Dot McGee in the article on South-Central Los Angeles ("What It Is. [And What It Was.]," Oct. 8) incorrectly identified the cross streets where the Pacific Town Club was located. It was at Adams and Montclair, not Adams and 24th.

"I worried about your ears," my mother has told me over the years. "I wanted to cover them." But I've always known she meant something else. That had never happened in the South, in New Orleans. "I had to wait to come to California . . . to Los Angeles."

We didn't end up on that block, ultimately, but just minutes away, on 61st Street--west of Crenshaw, south of Slauson--in a neighborhood, like the previous one, that decades later would come to be known to the world outside as "South-Central Los Angeles."

That appointment was for later in the day, but we were running a bit ahead of schedule and were already in the area, so we drove by to take a look.

At first sight, my mother fell in love with the huge, arched picture window, the Spanish stucco and red tile roof that declared, unequivocally, "Los Angeles"; my father, with the long driveway and two-car garage, the yucca plants and assortment of fruit trees. But we couldn't tour the rest of it--the inside--because of the neighborhood's restrictive housing covenant, an agreement worked out among lawyers, real estate agents and residents that prevented Negroes (and others of the neighbors' choosing) from inhabiting the houses that lined those streets.

We would finally see the inside after dark, as the Realtor had suggested. The owner was willing to disregard the covenant, but still, "The fewer eyes the better."

I don't remember much about our neighbors there, except for a large family next door--the mother white, the father Mexican American--whose children I played with, rolling down the steep humps of our front lawns over and over and over, fashioning a hurdle out of a palm tree stump. I remember them and the man across the street, who glared if spoken to and kept watch on us from his big uncurtained front window as he performed his calisthenics, a regimen of jumping jacks and toe touches, at all hours.

Not so long after we moved in, in August '65, my mother's father arrived by train from New Orleans to get a look at this new house, this "New Baby," my brother Rocky. My grandfather's happy journey coincided with motorist Marquette Frye's unfortunate one along Avalon Boulevard in Watts--a traffic stop that would become the flint for the most devastating urban unrest L.A. had ever seen.

My grandfather, by nature curious and gregarious, slipped out of the house early one morning, careful not to wake anyone. He found a bus to take him as close to the heat of the commotion as possible. When he couldn't ride right into it, he walked. He wanted to get to the center.

My grandfather left Los Angeles not long after the worst of the smoke had cleared, changed by what he'd seen--staggered, saddened, sobered. The family next door departed as well, also quietly, as if not to wake anyone, as did others soon after, all around us, house by house by house.

l.a. was supposed to be different, a place of transformation for African Americans journeying from their assorted elsewheres. "Los Angeles was wonderful," W.E.B. DuBois had touted in 1913 in the NAACP magazine The Crisis. "The air was scented with orange blossoms and the beautiful homes lay low crouching on the earth as though they loved its scents and flowers. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Here is an aggressive, hopeful group--with some wealth, large industrial opportunity and a buoyant spirit." Yet once they arrived, many found that Los Angeles simply offered a more complex version of racial inequity: discrimination that was hidden, chambered, difficult at first to discern and untangle.

L.A. was supposed to be a paradise, but "South-Central L.A."--less a place than a condition--is where we ended up.

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