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A Tour Along Historic Central Ave. is a Good Reminder that People are the Essence of Spaces

Andres Ramirez (at right,in purple), offers some history on the Dunbar Hotel, located at 42 Pl. and Central Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When I saw the older African-American gentleman standing next to the Dunbar (located in Central Avenue's historic jazz corridor) Sunday morning, holding a mug and observing us as we rode up alongside it, I gave him a big smile and a nod.

He returned the gesture with a broad smile.

One of the reasons I spend so much time on a bike in the areas I cover is that it allows me to do just that -- smile and nod at people. Besides making my day infinitely more pleasant, that brief connection often serves as an invitation for people to engage me on what I'm doing in the area and for me to do the same with them.

In this case, it apparently was enough to make the gentleman curious about what we were up to and to come around the corner of 42nd Place in time to hear Andres Ramirez (from Community Health Councils) give a short synopsis of the history of the Dunbar Hotel, the surrounding area, and the racial covenants that kept blacks from being able to live outside of certain designated areas until the middle of the last century.

I smiled at him again, this time as an invitation to listen in, because it was clear to me he was a resident and I was really hoping that he'd join in the discussion.

The riders were all activists that work tirelessly on livable streets issues in South L.A., but none of us live in that particular area. And, although we all care deeply about connecting with the neighborhoods we serve, I've noticed that on ride events that are intended to help riders experience and engage with South L.A. spaces, we often tend to spend time at stops talking to each other instead of the folks around us that actually inhabit the very spaces we are trying to understand and hope to improve.

As Andres' talk came to an end, I was ready to call out to the gentleman -- now standing at the entrance gate of the building -- to ask if he had any thoughts on the area that he wanted to share. But, he beat me to the punch and asked us if we'd like check out the former hotel's renovation for ourselves.

The cyclists leaving the Dunbar for Leimert Park after a wonderful tour of the new senior housing site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Hell yes, we did.

The Dunbar, built in 1928 by exclusively black contractors, laborers, and other workers and financed with black money, was the only major hotel in the city that welcomed African-Americans for decades. A hub for dignitaries, intellectuals, and writers, including W.E.B Du Bois and Langston Hughes, its jazz club became world-famous and the anchor of a vibrant scene along Central in the 1930s and '40s, attracting greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.

The area's fortunes fell as racial restrictions eased in the mid-20th century and performers preferred to stay in prestigious hotels that had once been off-limits to them. By the time the place was foreclosed upon in 2008, it had deteriorated into semi-slum conditions and the only activity it attracted tended to be of the illicit kind.

Its rebirth as Dunbar Village this past June, an affordable, inter-generational, and mixed-use community comprised of the Dunbar (senior housing) and the two Somerville buildings next door (which are still undergoing renovation to accommodate lower-income families), is intended to help revitalize the area.

Notably, the renovation should also include a public plaza that opens up to Central, offering the public a place to sit and soak in the history of the space.

If they're lucky, maybe visitors to the plaza will be able to overhear someone in the Dunbar tickling the ivories of the grand piano that sits in the gorgeous entryway. Many in the building are former musicians and not shy about sitting down to play a few tunes. our tour guide, Jesse, told us as he walked us through warm and spacious common areas decorated with historic and music-related artifacts.

While it appears that revitalization of the area is still quite a ways off from current realities, Jesse said that he and others in the newly renovated site want to be a part of better things to come for the area.

That worked for us.

Most of the riders were from TRUST South L.A., the LACBC, or Community Health Councils, all organizations working on Experience Central Avenue, an outreach effort that will be directed at engaging the community along the 8-mile stretch of Central Ave. between Little Tokyo and Watts on the design of potential bike and pedestrian improvements to the area in the coming years. Having connections with residents in the very heart of the corridor that we all would like to see celebrated for its important role in history will not only make that process easier, but make any improvements a truer fit to residents' needs.

As everyone packed up to head to Leimert Park, I stayed behind to give Jesse more background on what the group was up to and get more of his thoughts on the needs of the area.

The conversation inevitably turned to the challenge of doing community outreach on planning issues and getting everyone involved and on the same page. Citing Leimert as an example, he noted the difficulty of getting stakeholders in the area to communicate with and be supportive of each other.

I agreed, telling him the case of The World Stage is probably the most recent example of that.

At their small rally to save the space at the park on 43rd Pl. the day before (Saturday), those in attendance were largely artists with ties to the space and their friends, arts patrons, or press. Speakers offering praise to the long list of artists that had graced its stage and decrying its potential displacement had to compete with a religious group (and long-time park staple) that loudly chanted, preached, and sang at the other end of the park, seemingly oblivious to the concerns of the artists. As I moved around the perimeter of the park, residents who had lived all their lives in the area gestured toward the rally-goers and asked what was going on. All reported being aware that the buildings along Degnan had been bought, and felt it was a shame, but many said they were unfamiliar with much of what went on in the storefronts or knew little about The World Stage.

Conspicuously absent from the rally were some of the business owners that I saw at the artwalk the following day, a few of whom were catching up with former neighbors and lamenting the eviction of their businesses from the buildings once they had been bought.

Conney Williams emcees the rally for The World Stage in Leimert Park this past Saturday. The size of the group waxed and waned with the speakers. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

It was frustrating to see members of the community not coming together even as they all struggle with similar burdens and care about preventing displacement of the current population, I told Jesse. Especially because Leimert holds such an important place in both black history and the wider cultural history of Los Angeles. The displacement of the people of the area would constitute a loss of the spirit of the place and a link to that rich past.

Central Ave. will likely pose a similar challenge. While the corridor is key to understanding the racial and socio-economic evolution of the city, the constitution of the area has changed dramatically. Many of the businesses along stretches of Central are now Latino-owned or cater to a largely Latino customer base who are not necessarily familiar with the history of the area. Making sure that both are at the table and that history is balanced with current needs and aspirations will likely take significant investments of time and energy in building relationships and fostering long-term conversations.

"So, what is to be done?" Jesse asked with regard to getting folks to come to the table together.

I told him I didn't really have a good answer. I could only do what I and some of the others from the group I was riding with were doing now, which was reaching out to people like him, listening to their stories, connecting them with others who had complementary interests and aspirations, or helping groups at odds try to find common ground.

It's a slow process, to be sure.

But, it often can be helped along rather nicely with a smile and a nod.

If you're interested in exploring Central Ave, the LACBC, TRUST, and CHC will be leading a bike ride from Watts to Little Tokyo on Sunday, Nov. 3. See here for more details.

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