Riders Reclaim Central Ave. for Bikes for a Few Happy Hours

Members of the World Riders proudly roll up Central. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

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.

Riders take a lunch break at a park across the street from the Dunbar Hotel. Photo: John Jones III, East Side Riders BC

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.

Andres Ramirez of Community Health Councils offers a history lesson at a pit stop along Central Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Others were surprised to find that the character and feel of the neighborhoods changes considerably as you move north along the corridor.

And, it really does.

South of Slauson, the wide-openness of Central gives you time and space to gawk at muscled young men working out on the exercise equipment at Ted Watkins Park (at 103rd), salivate over a rib shack (at 85th), strike up a conversation with a biker sitting outside the site of one of the oldest black motorcycle clubs (at 82nd), stop in Mother’s Bike Shop to meet the mother and son team that run the bike shop and pick up one of the plants they also sell (at 79th), enjoy street food at several sites, pick up a rebuilt junkyard bike or bike parts from a street vendor, or take in some Mariachi with your seafood at Mariscos Mi Lindo Nayarit (at Florence).

Even where Central is quite wide, you don't have much protection from some of the trucks that rumble up and down the corridor. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

North of Slauson, the street narrows considerably and, once you hit the historic jazz corridor, you find yourself fighting for space and dodging cars and pedestrians making a beeline for one of the many restaurants, barber shops, peluqueros/peluquerías (hair salons), zumba classes, bike shops, houses of worship (including an Islamic Center), shopping centers, A Place Called Home (a fantastic youth center), the library, or main corridors, like MLK Blvd, that break off Central at odd angles or T-intersections.

The one constant, regardless of where the group was along the South L.A. stretch of the corridor, however, was that they were heartily cheered by those watching them roll by.

The joy with which people called out to their kids to come and wave at the riders reminded me of something city planner David Somers (also a ride participant) once told me. He observed that, of all the rides he’d been on around the city, he had never seen the kind of public enthusiasm and support for group rides that you see in South L.A.

Streets in many areas are so contested, I had explained, that people are really hungry to see positive community activities in the public space.

Hopefully, that enthusiasm for positive changes will translate into more frequent group rides and walks in the area. The more visible activity that can be generated along the corridor, the easier it will be to create an active and inclusive dialogue between the city, the advocacy organizations, and the surrounding communities. The more inclusive the dialogue, the better able we will be to incorporate the area’s past into a vision for the future that not only makes the area more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians, but also creates an improved environment that supports the businesses and activities already making positive contributions to the area.

It’s a tall order and a long process, but the enthusiastic responses I heard on Sunday from both the riders and the community members make me think it is possible.

For more information about the Experience Central Ave. campaign, please click here. More photos of the riders are here.

Half of the riders gather at the destination point in Little Tokyo for a group photo. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog