Mapping the Geography and History of South Los Angeles

Attempting map of South Los Angeles is bound to be contentious, but I’ve gone ahead and had a go at it anyway. No matter what anyone tells you there are no official borders of South Los Angeles and it would be hard to find two Angelenos in absolute agreement. The Los Angeles Times regards it as a 51.08 square mile region containing 28 neighborhoods. On the other hand, the LA Weekly‘s Dennis Romero describes it as a “mega-community” of just sixteen square miles. Although the author provides no map, his “South LA” mega-community is apparently smaller than Claremont.

More liberal definitions include municipalities like Compton and Inglewood, which aren’t part of the city of Los Angeles. The most conservative definitions might exclude unincorporated Los Angeles County communities like Athens, Athens on the Hill, Florence, Graham, View Park, Westmont, West Athens, Willowbrook, and Windsor Hills. The pedantic logician might argue for the inclusion of Los Angeles’s southern-most neighborhoods — San Pedro and Wilmington – but many residents of those Harbor neighborhoods don’t even think of themselves as living in Los Angeles.

 

El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles was founded in 1781 and for 88 years after, it was a small pueblo of square shape afforded four square leagues of land by the government of New Spain. Following the rules prescribed by the Leyes de Indias, the pueblo was located near a reasonably reliable source of water (the Los Angeles River), reasonably far from shore (to protect against pirate attacks), and conveniently close to a slave labor force, the Tongva residents of Yang-na.

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Detail of John C. Shaw’s “Map of the Territory Annexed to the City of Los Angeles, California” (1961) highlighting the annexations and additions of South Los Angeles

Los Angeles made its first apprehensive expansion on 1 June 1869, when the southern border was extended ever so slightly to the south, beyond what’s now Exposition Boulevard, adding a mere 766 acres (310 hectares) to the city’s territory in the process. Another 26 years passed before the Northeast Los Angeles communities of Highland Park and Sycamore Grove joined the city, in part because the teetotalers of the former didn’t like passing through the booze-soaked latter on their commutes to and from Los Angeles.

One year later, on 2 April 1896, the Western and Southern additions added land to (naturally) the town’s west and south. The Southern Addition was hemmed in by Hoover Street to the west, the city’s newish South Charter Boundary to the north, Alameda Street to the east, and Slauson Avenue to the south. Various names have been applied to southern region of Los Angeles ever since.

Although not especially common, “South Side” has a fairly long record of usage. In 1886, lots were first sold in the South Side Tract, in what’s now Pico-Union. Few would characterize that Mideast Los Angeles neighborhood as part of any southern region of Los Angeles, especially as it was then located outside and to the west of the city. It was, however, located south of the then-extant town of Colegrove, so perhaps it was named in relation to that. When I’m in South Los Angeles I sometimes notice placas which begin with an “SS,” which I believe stands for “South Side.” “South Side” has been occasionally applied to the southern region of Los Angeles, but never widely. In 1950, the Southside Theatre opened in Westmont. In the 1980s, a group of killings were attributed to a “Southside Slayer” (who turned out, in fact, to be at least three murderers).

Today South Los Angeles is popular although there’s a pervasive myth that “South Los Angeles” is a neologism cooked up by a city eager to bury the tarnished “South Central” who somehow “officially” renamed a region without “official” borders or identity. The reality, as you might expect, is slightly more complicated. “South Los Angeles” actually seems to be the oldest name widely applied the region. It existed at least as early as 1903, when the South Los Angeles Water Company incorporated in Huntington Park. I can’t even count the number of radio dramas, books, and films from the first half of the 20th Century which refer to the region as South Los Angeles. “South Central,” in fact, only seems to have overtaken “South Los Angeles” in usage (in print, at least) in the 1980s.

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Detail of the LA Travel and Hotel Bureau’s “Map of Los Angeles, California Rail Systems (1906) showing early rail lines through early South Los Angeles

“South Central” was originally applied to the black community that developed along South Central Avenue in the early 1900s. After outgrowing the confines ofLos Angeles’s original black neighborhood — the so-called “Brick Block,” (in what’s today known as the Old Bank District), the black community leapfrogged over the Skid Row of 5th Street (aka “The Nickel”) and established a new commercial center around the intersection of South Central Avenue and East 6th Street. Soon after it expanded south to East 8th Street… then it south to East 20th. As the black population grew, the white establishment grew wary. After 32 years of integration it was decided that the Los Angeles Fire Department should be racially segregated. An all-black fire station (now the African-American Firefighter Museum) was established at the corner of East 14th and South Central.

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Detail of “Pacific Electric map of Los Angeles” (1920) — note the label “South Los Angeles”

Not being Southerners, most white Angelenos would’ve likely rejected the characterization of racially restrictive housing covenants as “segregation” but I’m from Missouri and it smells decidedly like segregation to me. It eventually was practice that racially restrictive housing covenants would be used to confine black Angelenos  to an area hemmed in by Washington Boulevard to the north, Alameda Street to the east, Slauson Avenue to the south, and Main Street to the west. Despite the limitations imposed, the South Central corridor and community underwent something of a renaissance. Black businesspeople opened black business for mostly black clientele and black musical greats like Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, and “Ragtime” Billy Tucker moved from far away to live in the neighborhood. Black owned cinemas showed “race films” made by mostly-black casts and crews. Some non-blacks saw the appeal of the vibrant community and a 1934 article in the Madera Tribune reported the murder of a white woman who’d gone “slumming” with friends in the city’s “black belt.”

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Detail of K M Leuschner’s “Los Angeles – the wonder city of America” (1932)

In 1948, Shelley v. Kraemer went to the Supreme Court after a black family in Missouri violated a covenant restricting ownership from members of either the “Negro” or “Mongolian” races. The result was that racially based restrictive covenants were declared unconstitutional and naturally, the black population of Los Angeles’s southern neighborhood began to move outside the aging, crowded neighborhood of their confinement to other areas of the city and county. White racists formed gangs like the Spook Hunters to intimidate blacks from moving to “their” neighborhoods. Some blacks, in turn, formed protectionist clubs like The Devil Hunters, The Slausons, The Businessmen, The Farmers, and The Gladiators. Ultimately most whites moved away, passing the warning not to stray south of the 10.

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Detail of H.P. Noordwal’s “Electric car and bus routes in L.A.” (1934) showing expanded transit service in South Los Angeles

As the black population expanded, so to did the usage and application of “South Central.” Although South Central Avenue passes through the neighborhood of Watts, the earliest mention I have found referring to that neighborhood as part of South Central dates from 1966, a few months after the Watts Riots (or Rebellion, depending on your perspective). South Central Avenue also passes through the city of Compton, once a mostly white suburb that was a major hub of country music and briefly the home of George H.W. Bush and family. The black population of Compton grew in the 1960s. In 1969 the city elected its first black mayor. In 1978, when the Compton Courthouse was built, it was designated part of the South Central Judicial District.

“South Central” also moved west, relatively far from South Central Avenue. Confusingly, Crenshaw (named after Crenshaw Boulevard) is often today referred to as South Central, a reference to a street some distance to the east. Crenshaw Boulevard runs through Inglewood, a suburb which although landlocked has traditionally been characterized as being part of the South Bay region. The 1960 census counted just 29 black residents (less than .05% of the population) and resistance to school segregation depressingly dragged on into the 1970s. The city’s first black mayor was finally elected in 1983. Although South Central Avenue is never within five kilometers of Inglewood, “The ‘Wood” or “Inglehood,” it eventually became fairly common to characterize that South Bay suburb as being part of “South Central.” The earliest improbably reference to Inglewood as part of South Central that I’ve found is from a 1992 piece on the Los Angeles Riots — written by a journalist in Wisconsin.

Over the decades since Shelly vs. Kraemer, “South Central,” has become a metonym, a byword, coded speech, a slur, and a badge of honor. Look it up on the website urban dictionary and the word “ghetto” comes up a lot. Mainstream media tends to eschew it almost entirely except for the occasional high-speed chase, tragic shooting, or soul food listicle. Decades-old ‘hood films and quarter century-old rap oldies preserve in digital amber stereotypes from the bad-old-days of Ronald Reagan’s crack wars, Trickle Down Economics, the AIDS Epidemic, and Mental Health Crisis. To be sure, there are still problems facing South Los Angeles but there is also much that is worth celebrating about the region. Without wishing to minimize the impact of economic depression or other misfortune, the monolithic characterization of the region as an “inner city hell” seems to me like another inexcusable act of violence. So let me offer a view that is counter.

South Central is diversity: Belizeans, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Koreans, Jamaicans, Japanese, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Samoans. It’s stately mansions in Sugar Hill, tasteful Moderns in the Baldwin Hills, and public housing which in a less-cynical world well-maintained and dignified. It’s college and university campuses and all they have to offer. It’s cultural events like the Central Avenue Jazz FestivalPan-African Film Festival, and Taste of Soul. It’s small but charming parks like the Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park and the Jan Perry Wetlands. It’s guerrilla gardeners, East Side Riders, Paul Revere Williams, swap meets, farmers’ markets, community gardens, ciclovias, activism, bookstores, performing arts spaces, friendly bars, open-mic hip hop, jazz, blues, coffee shops and restaurants both good and bad. With that in mind I made this map. I’d love your additions – provided they are positive or respectful. Thanks!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on various products from Cal31He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.
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