BLACKATLAS.COM - LOS ANGELES
For me there is Hollywood
and there is Los Angeles, two closely linked but distinctly different
places. When I fly to LA to do
business a spend a lot of my time in Hollywood, not the geographic area, but an
entertainment business state of mind, which encompasses a lot of buildings,
restaurants, clubs and sound stages.
So the Hollywood of the mind is actually scattered all over the city.
But the City of Los
Angeles (and Beverly Hills and Santa Monica) are much more complex and cozy
than outsiders think. Over the past 28 years I’ve averaged three trips a year
to LA and, as recently as 2007, I lived in the city for six months. So while I
don’t know LA like a native, I do know it much better than your typical
That’s why the separation
of Hollywood as a state of mind and LA, the city, is so powerful for me.
Because of its sprawl and its many hidden neighborhoods LA is also a place
where history is hidden -- sometimes in plain sight. So for this blog I thought
I’d use some little known black history as my guide around town, using the past
as a way to introduce folks to places & spaces in the present.
Black folks have a long,
complicated history in the city of Angels; a history Walter Moseley’s Easy
Rawlins mystery novels have mined for material so beautifully over the years.
Today black Los Angeles is shrinking as places like Inglewood and Compton
experience black flight. Even the broad area known as South Central Los
Angeles, whose hard knock existence was chronicled in films like ‘Boyz in the
Hood’ and ‘Menace II Society,’ has undergone a profound change. Just a few
years ago the area was officially renamed South LA by the city council, a
reflection of its changing personality and population.
I’m sure that name change
would very much-interested Paul Revere Williams, a black architect who played
an important role in the visual definition of this celebrated city. Despite
racism that would prevent him from walking in the front door of buildings he’d
designed, Williams had a quite varied career. Before his death in 1981 Williams
designed major public spaces as well as private homes with clients that
included dancer/actor Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and singer Frank Sinatra.
Hollywood is home to one
of Williams’ most utilitarian buildings, the Hollywood Y. Located on Schrader,
just up from Sunset Boulevard; this athletic facility serves Angelinos from
Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silverlake and even West Hollywood. Before my celebrated
retirement from basketball (what, you missed my farewell tour?), I used to
catch runs at the spirited games played on the Hollywood Y’s two regulation
full courts. In the games there you’ll find yourself battling for rebounds
against stand up comedians, record producers and other folks who have time to
play ball during weekdays. The building also has a full range of classes,
fitness machines and is very family friendly.
The area in Hollywood
surrounding the Y is undergoing a massive re-development. A huge W Hotel will
be opening soon at Hollywood & Vine as will a Whole Foods. Loft styled
apartments have reclaimed many vintage buildings and nightclubs proliferate
including Les Deux on North Las Palmas Ave., which is very popular for
post-premiere bashes. On the Highland end of Hollywood Boulevard is the Kodak
Theater, where the Academy awards are held, and the Chinese theater, where the
footprints of many generations of stars are immortalized in concrete. And those
stars on Hollywood Boulevard still line the street and are pretty regularly
updated. My friend Chris Rock was just awarded one a couple of years ago.
On Cahuenga, just two
blocks from the Y, Aklia’s Rehab Salon, a black owned space run by Aklia Chinn,
who’s been selling Egyptian/Afrocentric influenced jewelry and providing hair
care and skin treatments since 1995. The shop is a little gem of black
entrepreneurship in Hollywood just a block away from CNN’s Los Angeles
headquarters and Amoeba Records, one of the nation’s last great record stores.
architecture as a guide I traveled across Sunset, heading west and passing by
the flashy hotels and sidewalk cafes for West Hollywood to the more exclusive
area known as Beverly Hills. You can immediately feel the difference between
West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Sunset widens, the greenery abounds and
pedestrians disappear. The tall trees obscure the many palatial homes behind
them and give Beverly Hills a posh, even intimidating feel.
One of William’s most
famous buildings is obscured by such trees, though anyone who’s anyone in Hollywood
is comfortable driving up to the front of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The hotel
opened in 1912 and Williams was hired to renovate and update the place in 1943,
a task that took him four years to complete.
The Beverly Hills Hotel
has been associated with power and status. With its distinctive green &
peach color motif, its long, secluded driveway and popular private bungalows,
this place screams old school Hollywood glamour. It is the irony of this place
is that a black man, who’d be considered an outsider, created such an insider
If you are looking for a
peek at star power its regularly on display at the hotel’s famous Polo Lounge.
Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston and Jamie Foxx are just a few of the folks I’ve
spotted having lunch there over the years, not to mention the many studio
executives and producers who frequent the place. Anybody can make a reservation
and get a table, but where that table is located is definitely based on you’re
A, B or C level status. The most desirable tables are outside and offer a nice
view of, as Aretha said, who’s zoomin’ who. The secluded bungalows offer
privacy and secrecy; so if you roll by don’t be surprised to be paparazzi with
long lens cameras across the street.
SANTA MONICA SURFERS
From Williams’ landmark it’s
a long, winding ride West on Sunset from Beverly Hills out to the Pacific
Ocean. At the end of that ride, which takes you through Westwood, Brentwood and
Bel Air, you could stop at Gladstone’s, a family friendly, seaside seafood
But my search for Los
Angeles’ little known black history leads me to make a left on the Pacific
Coast Highway and head toward Santa Monica. Santa Monica is home to a famous
pier, which has an old school carnival feel because of its quaint Ferris wheel,
bumper cars and penny arcade. It’s a very working class ethnic hang for mostly
black and Hispanic families.
Away from the pier Santa
Monica is very wealthy, progressive city with tons of excellent yoga studios
(check out the Yoga Works chain out there if you feel the need to stretch.) A
reflection of that aspect of Santa Monica is Shutters, a picturesque hotel
right off the beach, which is popular for weekend getaways.
On the beach near
Shutters, on a boulder under a shady tree, is a relatively new and noteworthy
memorial to the city’s black past. Nailed to that boulder is plaque celebrating
two important pieces of beach history. The first is that from the 1920s into
the ‘60s a 200-foot stretch of Santa Monica beach was designated for use
“colored” beach goers. This segregated swatch of land was, like the more famous
strip of sand in Martha’s Vineyard, was called the Inkwell.
So its not surprising that
the first known black surfer in Southern California, a Santa Monica high school
student named Nicolas Gabaldon, is also celebrated on this plaque. Back in the
1940s, when the area’s surf culture was starting to develop, Gabaldon brought a
board and crossed a culture and color line. Today you can be part of the
African-American surf community by checking out www.blacksurfingassociation.com.
I decided to get back on
the trail of Paul Williams and to visit one of my favorite black LA
institutions at the same time. So I drove from Santa Monica over to Leimert Park,
a long standing black community with a strong cultural hub on Degnan Boulevard,
where you find various Afrocentric shops, restaurants, and businesses. On this
Saturday, turning onto Degnan Boulevard, I passed a drum circle in the park and
then parked next to a area where a weekly farmer’s market was in full swing.
On the sidewalks of Degnan
is a mini-black version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Community leaders and
artists are immortalized in small plaques placed in the sidewalk. One of those
is for Paul Revere Williams. That Williams is celebrated right next to 4331
Degnan Boulevard feels right to me, since that is the address of a place
dedicated to the documentation of black achievement.
I’m talking about Eso Won
Books, one of my favorite bookshops in the country and a place I’ve done at
least six events at over the years. Started in 1987 and once located on LaBrea
Boulevard, Eso Won is as much a cultural center as a bookstore, since it has an
extensive collection of tapes and DVDs dealing with black history here and
world the globe. Some of my most stimulating nights as an author have been at
Eso Won Books, where a sharp, politically engaged and culturally aware group of
readers always attend with great questions and observations.
“Leimert has always been a
cultural center,” Says Eso Won Books co-owner Tom Hamilton. “Marla Gibbs had
the Vision Theater complex here. The Comedy Act Theater where Robin Harris
first became known was located here. So it’s always been a place where people
come to and prowl around, especially on the weekends.”
Two Presidents have read
at Eso Won (Bill Clinton after his presidency and Barack Obama before) as well
as critical thinkers like Michael Eric Dyson and bestselling authors like
Walter Moseley and Nikki Giovanni. “When we first had Obama he was just running
from State Senate and we had like five people,” Hamilton recalls. “Very nice
guy. I’m thinking he looks senatorial, but I don’t know what he’s gonna do. So
when he comes out with his second book he tells the publisher there’s a little
black bookstore that was very nice to me, so book me there. So he came and it
was the week he declared and we sold 800 books.”
When I ask if they have a
bio of Paul Williams co-owner says they are sold out, but he tells me the
publisher and even recommends another independent bookstore that may have it.
It’s the kind of personal service you want, but so rarely receive in the era of
When I ask Tom what up
coming titles he’s excited about he surprises me by praising Serena Williams’
up coming memoir. He’s read an advance copy and thinks Serena’s honesty, both
about her career and personal life, makes him see it as a potential bestseller.
To end my day trip around
L.A.’s various villages I headed over from Crenshaw Boulevard to LaCienega
Boulevard where a much more recognizable black icon has two popular businesses.
Though Magic Johnson’s movie theaters are nationally known, his Ladera Heights
Starbucks and T.G.I.Fridays, located adjacent to each other in an outdoor mall
are also signature locations in the city. The Friday’s is known for a lively
weekly dating and bar scene, while the Starbucks is a chilled out gathering
place for middle class black folks from Ladera, Baldwin Hills and View Park. I
get a chai latte and then walk over to the side of the Starbucks where the long
running chess matches are well underway.
Four players sit across
from each other engaged in mental combat while a small group of men watch
closely, talk trash and offer advice. It’s a very warm, intimate community
moment in a city that people think of a place of glitz and glamour. You can
have a Hollywood experience or an L.A. experience. It’s just a matter of taking
the time to look.
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