FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
South Central Los Angeles has become a synonym for inner city dysfunction: gang violence, crack epidemics and urban blight. But what the Hollywood movies don't say it that South Central was once a thriving, mixed-race neighborhood at the heart of L.A. An upcoming photo exhibition called Intersections at L.A.'s California African-American Museum captures South Central's evolution over the last century.
To find out more about how the area has changed, I met in the nearby Crenshaw neighborhood with the museum's history curator, along with the South Central native who has written about the neighborhood.
I'm here with Lynell George and Chris Jimenez Y West, who put together - Chris put together the exhibit on the past and the present of South Central, and Lynell wrote an article for West magazine. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. CHRIS JIMENEZ Y WEST (History Curator, California African-American Museum): Thank you.
Ms. LYNELL GEORGE (Writer, The Los Angeles Times): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Chris, you were just saying that this is the first time that you've held the magazine in your hands that has the exhibit that's going to go up at the museum.
Mr. WEST: The image that's on the cover is by one-shot Harry Adams from the Cal State University Northridge collection. We actually went out there and we pulled the image. You know, it's one of hundreds of images from his collection. He was a great photographer, too. It's a newsboy on Central Avenue, which is, particularly in ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, kind of hub of commercial life for black Los Angeles. And this actually mid-1960s and the newsboy selling the Los Angeles Sentinel, which is before - I mean after the California Eagle becomes the critical newspaper for the community. And all that to say that it's still just a great shot by Harry Adams.
CHIDEYA: Lynell, you wrote the story. How does it feel to hold the magazine in your hands? And how long did it take?
Ms. GEORGE: This is like one of those serendipitous things that happen in recording. I was working on another story, called the Automobile Club to check a fact. When I was talking to Matt Roth, who happens to be one of the co-curators on this exhibit, he starts talking about this idea. His idea of, like, dealing with South Central as a concept. You know, as a label, as a trope, as opposed to a place and really trying to just do an on-the-ground look at what it was.
CHIDEYA: Well, I think it's time for us to head off to Central Avenue.
Ms. GEORGE: Okay.
CHIDEYA: So we took a little drive over from what's more of the Crenshaw area to South Central - 32nd and Central Avenue. Lynell, tell us about where we are right now.
Ms. GEORGE: This is one of my first stops when I met with one of the photographers who was in the Intersection's exhibit, and his name is Lester Sloan. And Lester spent months on this block, walking up and down this block and meeting families - some days not shooting at all. And he talked a lot to me more about the relationships that he began to make more than even the images.
And he said that was the most fascinating thing about this project for him. He said we have all of these perceptions about who's there now. He goes, and people who were there now are very much like the people who were there before.
CHIDEYA: But we're talking here now about…
Ms. GEORGE: …a predominantly Latino community now.
CHIDEYA: As an African-American photographer, did Lester ever feel unwelcome, do you know? Or it sounds like he struck up a good rapport.
Ms. GEORGE: He - I think he worked on it I think because he didn't pull the camera out right away. And all the photographers actually mentioned that being able to spend time in a neighborhood allowed them to be part of the neighborhood again. They were all struck, and all of them were African-American, were struck by the changes like, you know, where are my folks? Where are my people? You know? I mean they - even though you already read about the change, knew about it, but being there and seeing that it was so different. But the time you spend makes you a part of the community, too.
CHIDEYA: This is, broadly speaking, the area where you grew up. How does it feel for you to be back here?
Ms. GEORGE: It's interesting because, symbolically, Central Avenue is the crown jewel of the black community. I mean it's where the clubs were. It's where people stayed. Dignitaries, when they were coming to town, because it's the only places where they could stay. And so being here now, it's really different to see all the signage in Spanish and see different community on the street starting out with their families. That's different. That's very different for me.
Mr. WEST: It's always perplexing to me as a historian because this was community, residentially at least - even though commercially it serves at the heart of the African-American community, as well as a 103rd in Watts - that residentially it was mixed. And then whites, through FHA as well as G.I. Bill, post-war were moving into mostly white suburbs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, transforms this into a dominantly residential African-American space. And now, as we move into to 2006, both commercially as well as residentially it's becoming more Latin America, but more of a first generation.
CHIDEYA: Where did black folks go? Because I know the census has said black Angelinos are moving back to the south. What parts of the area, the local area, have African-Americans gone to? Where did the people who you chronicled from the past move to?
Mr. WEST: There's a couple of things that happened in the 1980s. Clearly, the crack cocaine epidemic dramatically impacts issues of safety for a population that was now into - on the whole, middle class, working class with living wage employment, begin to move out. And they moved to areas on extreme edges of the Southern California region.
There is an aging African-American population who migrated here in the ‘40s and ‘50s who live in an older age homes, in their own home that they've purchased and now own outright. And there is a attention in this community, and then part of it is just simply a lack of memory that this was, on the whole, a space that was ethnic and racially diverse through the 1940s.
Ms. GEORGE: And what I'm struck by is, and as I often am as a reporter, when you drive through a lot of these neighborhoods, there's still so many businesses that are shuttered and have been for decades. You know, these businesses that either after Watts they didn't reopened or people just haven't wanted to move back in. And this coexistence of past, present and then you're looking at the future, there's something really rich about this street for that reason, too. It's almost like passing a baton.
CHIDEYA: That was Los Angeles Times writer Lynell George. Her article on growing up in South Central L.A. will appear in this weekend's L.A. Times' supplement West.
I was also joined by Chris Jimenez Y West, a history curator with the California African-American Museum. He helped create the exhibition, Images of South Central: People and Places in Historic and Contemporary Photographs, which opens on November the 16th.
To find a link to the California African-American Museum, where you can see photos from the exhibition, go to our Web site: npr.org.
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