For much of the time that I lived in Sevilla, Spain, I lived adjacent to the surprisingly still-formidable walls that once surrounded the old city and were constructed (for the second time) in the 11th century.
History was everywhere you looked, often making the connection between past and present seamless. Because so many of the festivals revolve around tradition and take place in the historic spaces, regardless of whether you felt reassured or oppressed by history and tradition, you were always conscious of where you were and who had gone before you.
In L.A., the transient nature of people and constant turnover or transformation of structures means that tapping into that past is often much more of a challenge.
It doesn’t help that some of our historic corridors, like Central Ave., have fallen into disrepair or are overshadowed by negative stereotypes and/or characterizations of present-day problems. The wariness of visitors to explore Watts, for example, means that most are unaware that the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), located at 108th and Central, is home to a wonderful civil rights museum that houses a recreation of a ship’s slave hold, a Mississippi Delta scene from the Reconstruction Era, and rooms with more modern artifacts, including a jail cell, “Whites Only” signage, a diner counter, photographs, sculptures, and blackface/minstrel memorabilia.
Other sites have taken on a new life that offers few clues to the past. The Lincoln Theater (located at 23rd and Central), a historical monument and once a key venue for African-American entertainment, like many spaces along Central, has since been converted into a Latino church. The boisterous preaching and song that filter out through the doors of what is now Iglesia Jesucristo de Judá on Sunday mornings bear little resemblance to the soundscapes jazz greats created in the past. The Dunbar (at 42nd and Central), also a important historical site in jazz and African-American history, has recently been converted into senior housing. While the interior has been gorgeously remodeled and stocked with memorabilia from the era, the absence of a musical venue open to the public means the burden of conjuring the glory of the past falls largely on the observer. Or, on engaging with local residents who have roots in the area, a number of whom are still around.
The fact that you must scavenger hunt for history is also part of what makes events like Sunday’s bike ride along Central from Watts to Little Tokyo so special.
The ride was part of the Experience Central Avenue campaign, a collaborative effort by TRUST South L.A., Community Health Councils (CHC), and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), to engage communities on the future of Central Ave. Given that the LADOT will be implementing bike and pedestrian improvements along that corridor over the next few years, now is the perfect time to revisit the physical and social history of the area while looking for ways to both celebrate that past and make the area more accessible for all.
The partnership between these organizations, whose constituent bases reside both north and south of the 10 freeway, meant that there were a lot of new faces in the crowd on Sunday. In fact, I was pleasantly stunned to see such a diverse crowd rolling at least 80 deep towards me when I met the riders around Central and Manchester. South L.A. staples, the United Riders of South L.A., were out in force and were joined by the World Riders (a newer group based near USC), Shuntain Thomas and family (who organize the Peace, Love, and Family ride), and some residents from along Central who had learned about the ride at CicLAvia. The participation of the LACBC enticed students from the planning school at UCLA and other members and supporters, many of whom had not visited the area previously.
The history lessons Andres Ramirez (from CHC) offered at each stop gave many new insights into the area. Read more…