The Nobody Drives in LA Guide to CicLAvia South LA

Nobody Drives in LA

With bicycles, buses, ferries, planes, rideshares, sidewalks, subways, taxis, and trains at Angelenos’ disposal, why would any sane person choose car-dependency? Nobody Drives in LA celebrates sense and sensibility in transportation.

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“CicLAvia comes to South Los Angeles for first time” read the headline of the Daily Trojan — which is true if you believe the hype that USC isn’t itself located in South Los Angeles, which it of course is. If you can look at Downtown from where you are and have to refer to it as being “over there” then you’re not in it (same goes for the Brewery folks in Lincoln Heights who want to claim Arts District).

Angeles Forest

I know that CicLAvia has been to South Los Angeles before because I walked most of that one and there was a hub in Exposition Park, just south of USC. This is, however, the first CicLAvia to be located entirely within South Los Angeles, which is something to celebrate because although South Los Angeles is a vast, fascinating region, the only time most media outlets ever head south of the 10 is by helicopter to cover a car chase or to compile an online listicle of Los Angeles’s best soul food restaurants — and you have to wonder if they ever actually left their desks. Other than that, you’re not likely to hear much about anything happening in South Los Angeles unless you live there, fear there, or read the LA Sentinel, Los Angeles Wave, Our Weekly, Intersections South LA, or Streetsblog LA.

Open streets events give all of us a chance to enjoy the streets – which are, after all, public space (even if we don’t often feel safe or allowed in them unless incased within an automobile). For just six hours between 9am and 3pm on 7 December, CicLAvia will close traffic to automobiles along a section of South Central Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, and Leimert Boulevard. In doing so people will have the chance to explore and connect with the vibrant neighborhoods through which those streets pass without fear of being hit by someone whose text just couldn’t wait. On the Eastside those neighborhoods include South Central, Central-Alameda, and South Park. On the Westside: Exposition Park, Vermont Square, King Estates, Chesterfield Square, Arlington Park, and Leimert Park.

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SOUTH CENTRAL is to South Los Angeles as the Bible is to most bookshelves. Everyone thinks that they know its contents and yet few have actually bothered to crack it open. South Central is named after its high street, South Central Avenue, which by 1915 the California Eagle was referring to as Los Angeles’s “black belt.” Within this historic district there are many, varied attractions.

South of the campus of LATT (which is itself worth exploring), along Adams Boulevard and next to the Expo Line is a row palm trees planted in the 1860s and the oldest row of those non-native icons in the city. The 27th Street Historic District contains numerous Queen Anne style (and some Colonial Revival and Transitional Craftsman) homes dating back to 1895 (when it was developed as Grider & Dow’s Adams Street Tract) as well as John C. Austin‘s Romanesque style Haven Methodist Episcopal Church (now known as the Crouch Memorial Church of God and Christ) [UPDATE — I discovered that the church burned down in late 2013!]. Church or architecture fans might also want to check out the Gothic Revival style Salem Congregational Church (now known as Nueva Iglesia Bautista en Cristo), constructed in 1896.

36th Street too (originally part of Potter’s Woodlawn Tract) includes many well-preserved and beautiful early 20th century homes. Between the two streets is the the 28th Street YMCA, designed by the great black architect Paul Revere Williams, and built in 1926. Williams also designed the nearby Lombardy Romanesque Revival style Second Baptist Church and the Angelus Funeral Home, built in 1936.

Up along the Washington Boulevard Corridor (of which the claim to be Downtown can be made more reasonably — despite being on the “wrong” side of the 10) there are several sites worth checking out including Patriotic Hall (1926), the vintage shop Olde Good Things, Grand Olympic Auditorium (built in 1924 for the 1932 Olympic games and now the Glory Church of Jesus Christ), Los Angeles Trade Technical College (which opened in 1925 as the Frank Wiggins Trade School), LA Mart (built in 1951 and the parking lot of which is home to a huge wooden chair), the Art Deco style International Mart (built in 1927), and the Brutalist style Municipal Traffic Court Building/Metropolitan Courthouse (1977).

South Central also has historic markers noting the locations of black businesses and venues which gave the neighborhood its reputation as the “Harlem of the West,” as well as many murals, the United Lodge of the Theosophists (built in 1927), Fire Station No. 14 (built in 1949), and Los Amigos Mall, a swap meet, which has a courtyard and stage, “Estrellas de los Amigos,” which hosts live music on Sundays.

CENTRAL-ALAMEDA, to South Central’s east, is mostly industrial (just east of it is the “entirely industrial” Vernon). During segregation, this neighborhood and South Central were home to many black theaters (the Elite, the Gayety, the Photoplay (later renamed the Washington), the Rosebud, the Star, and the Woodlawn (later renamed the Pictorial and even later, the Barbara). All have been demolished. Lest you think that demolishing our cinematic history is a thing of the past, the Globe (later renamed the Florence Mills) was destroyed in 2013 and although not in South Los Angeles, a demolition fence just went up around the Art Deco Four Star Theater on Wilshire. Thankfully, Central-Alameda’s historic Lincoln Theatre – last of the area’s black theaters – has so far been spared the wrecking ball. Built in 1926 in a Moorish Revival style, it hosted the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Esther Phillips, Johnny Otis, Lionel Hampton, and The Nat King Cole Trio, among many others.

Central-Alameda is also home to the Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park, a secret garden-like urban oasis built on the former site of a cement pipe storage yard. The neighborhood was formerly home to the famous South Central Farm, which since the eviction of hundreds of farmers, has been allowed to return to being a huge, vacant lot. Central-Alameda is also the site of Pueblo del Rio, a garden apartment style housing project designed by such as Richard Neutra and Paul Revere Williams and built in 1941. Finally, the neighborhood is also home to one of Los Angeles’s best swap meets – Alameda Swap Meet.

SOUTH PARK, as one might rightly expect, is centered on a park called South Park, developed in 1899. What you might not expect is that it was also the apparent birthplace of tiddle-dee-winks, a variation on the game of horseshoes. Another interesting green space in South Park is the Jan Perry Wetlands, fka South Los Angeles Wetlands Park, and constructed on the site of an old bus and rail yard. It’s an artificial wetlands designed to clean water but it’s landscaped with native plants and trails which have turned it into a proper scenic attraction.

South Park is also home to an historic Prince Hall Masonic Temple (built in 1926), the RM Schindler-designed Bethlehem Baptist Church (built in 1944), and most famously, the Dunbar Hotel — built in 1928 and the most important site of West Coast Jazz thanks to its Club Alabam, which hosted the likes of Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Ray Charles, and many other black performers then barred from staying in other parts of town.

EXPOSITION PARK was originally an agricultural fairground, which opened as Agricultural Park in 1872. Until 1911 it was used for camel, dog, horse, and eventually automobile races. In 1927, the race track was planted with 100 varieties of roses. There are now more than 200 varieties. The surrounding neighborhood, also known as Exposition Park, is home to the California African American Museum, the California Science Center (final resting place of the Space Shuttle Endeavour), the Natural History Museum, the Los Angeles Swimming Stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Shrine Auditorium, and a striking mosque, Masjid Omar ibn Al-Khattab.

VERMONT SQUARE is today home to just a couple of parks – Vermont Square Park and Julian C. Dixon Park. In the 1930s there were presumably many more as it was then home to most of Los Angeles’s Korean population. Today, a few blocks north of the neighborhood, the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Van Buren Place commemorates this historic population and in particular, activist Ahn Changho.

Vermont Square’s attractions include the beautiful Romanesque Revival style St. Cecilia Catholic Church (built in 1927) and Vermont Square Library — one of Los Angeles’s three remaining Carnegie libraries. Today the population of Vermont Square is mostly Latino but with a large Belizean population, represented by The Pelican.

KING ESTATES it can safely be surmised, is named after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The neighborhood is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center and park and it is along the neighborhood’s edge which passes the annual Kingdom Day Parade. However, the “King Estates” designation is fairly new, a product of the Eighth District Empowerment Congress’s Naming Neighborhoods Project. Having yet to explore the neighborhood, I don’t know much about it besides that.

CHESTERFIELD SQUARE was developed in 1912 by Charles List and his brother, R.D. List. It’s home to Chesterfield Square Park, a small, pretty, formal park with axial walkways, mature sycamores, and a walk street – Concordia Walk – along its southern edge. Across the street is the beautiful 54th Street Seventh Day Adventist Church. Other interesting neighborhood churches include the Shingle style Pilgrim Congregational Church, the Art Deco style Brookins Community AME Church, and the Modernist St. Brigid’s Church, built in 1955. There are, befitting the era of the neighborhood’s development, many charming Spanish Colonial Revival and Craftstman homes and most of the commercial streets still bear the signs of having been travelled by LARy’s old Yellow Cars.

Pioneering special effects man Ray Harryhausen used to live at 4822 Cimarron Street and later operated a studio near the intersection of Cimarron and 54th Street.If you’re a Boyz N the Hood fan, the homes of Furious Styles, Brandi, and Baker are also all located along Cimarron Street, the 5900 block to be precise.

In 1958, now 100-year-old Leon T. Garr moved to the neighborhood from Ruston, Louisiana and the successful businessman and philanthropist’s name can be seen around the neighborhood on the Garr Child Care Learning Institute, the Garr Academy of Math and Entrepreneurial Studies School, the Leon & Mattie Garr Foundation, and the Garr Banquet Hall. Another entrepreneur from the neighborhood was (he passed away in 2011) Frederic Douglas “Good Fred” Ellis, whose Good Fred hair oil was used by the likes of Bobby Womack, Clifton Powell, Nina Simone, and Richard Pryor and who’s memorialized in a mural at Good Fred’s Barbershop. One of my favorite shops in the area is Antique Stove Heaven, which restores and sells antique stoves.

ARLINGTON PARK is another product of the Eighth District Empowerment Congress’s Naming Neighborhoods Project. I haven’t yet explored it either and I therefore know next to nothing about it.

LEIMERT PARK, finally, is a real gem of a neighborhood. It was built as a master planned community built in 1928 and designed by the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm. The streets – especially Degnan – are in several cases lined with beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival homes and mature, shade-providing trees. Leimert Park is well known as a center of black art, music, and culture and the Good Life Café is where Project Blowed got off the ground. It’s also home to the Mediterranean Revival style Leimert Park Theater, now renamed the Vision Theatre, built in 1931 and undergoing some much-needed revitalization.

In and around the Leimert Park Village area in the neighborhood’s southern end (located near the small-town-vibe-radiating Leimert Plaza Park), there are jazz cafes, coffee shops, African boutiques, and many other black businesses. Centered along Coliseum Street in the neighborhood’s north, on the other hand, is an historic Japanese community, which began settling the area after being released from concentration camps during World War II.

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If this seems comprehensive, trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is this meant to entice you to explore the neighborhoods thorough which CicLAvia South LA will pass, it’s also my hope that it will open you up to exploring and enjoying all of South Los Angeles — and all of the Southland, for that matter. Share your own experiences in the comments and see you in the streets on Sunday. (I’ll add pictures later).

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Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages and involve neither listicles nor television personalities. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured as subject in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker onKCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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