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Crenshaw Boulevard: the Heart of Black LA

Crenshaw Boulevard is recognized as the commercial and cultural spine of Black Los Angeles. In recent years, however, surrounding neighborhoods in central Crenshaw have undergone dramatic change as “revitalization” projects promising opportunities for economic growth have threatened the historical and cultural character of this community. The Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at CSUN holds extensive photographic documentation of the communities in the Crenshaw District at their cultural height in the 1980s and 1990s. These images were captured by a number of black commercial and documentary photographers including Roland Charles, Guy Crowder, Harry Adams, Calvin Hicks, and Jack Davis. Roland Charles, originally from Louisiana, would go on to found The Black Gallery, one of the first art galleries dedicated to photography of black life, adjacent to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Center in the heart of the community. 

Residents wait for the traffic light as cars pass by on a Crenshaw corner, circa 1980-1989. Roland Charles Collection, Box 82Crenshaw Boulevard is a 23-mile-long road that starts at Wilshire’s Mid-City District and ends at the scenic cliffs of Palos Verdes. The street was named in 1904 after the banker and real estate developer George Lafayette Crenshaw, and because of its natural beauty and central location it attracted middle- and upper-class white populations in its early years. Prior to World War II, many of the communities along Crenshaw barred non-white populations from owning property. After the 1948 Supreme Court ruling that disempowered the enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants, Black and Japanese-American families flocked to Crenshaw’s surrounding neighborhoods such as Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills to become homeowners themselves.

By the 1960s, these neighborhoods became predominantly African American as growing tensions between minority and white residents, the “close enough” 1965 Watts uprising, and racist fearmongering among realtors encouraging white residents to sell their homes, all culminated in dramatic white flight from Crenshaw’s central communities. According to a survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 1979, Crenshaw had, by the end of the sixties, gone from 65% white to 79% Black, 10% white and Latino, and 11% Asian.  At the same time, nightlife and black entrepreneurship on and around Crenshaw thrived as Black-owned clubs such as the Memory Lane Supper Club and Mavericks Flat in Leimert Park hosted musical acts like Nat King Cole, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye. After shows, former residents recall going to Holiday Bowl, a Japanese-American owned café and bowling alley on Crenshaw that served a multiethnic clientele. 

In 1984, to support the shifting population, the Los Angeles City Council approved a redevelopment plan for the Crenshaw Center, a shopping center originally constructed in 1947 that had been on a major decline throughout the 70s. The mall would be renamed The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and became a community hub for its residents and Black business, hosting the annual Pan-African Film Festival and a weekly Farmers Market, and serving as the site for the Museum of African American Art. The Roland Charles and Calvin Hicks collections include extensive photography of the mall before and after this renovation. These photographs depict a vibrant social life, community organizing, and a landscape that has steadily changed over the yearsIntersection of Crenshaw and King Blvd, 1988. Calvin Hicks Collection, Box 1.

In recent years the mall, having gone through another decline, has been sold to a private investor that plans to rework its original design. Many of the other buildings and businesses down Crenshaw Blvd featured in these collections have been demolished and replaced by condominiums. By 1999, even Charles’ Black Gallery had to close its doors and donated its collections to the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center. In spite of these changes, Roland Charles and his colleagues have encapsulated this place and time in their photography so that it may never be forgotten. These photographs and more can be viewed by visiting Special Collections & Archives or by browsing the Digital Collections.

Exterior view of the former Crenshaw Center, with a sign for customer parking and the Broadway department store building still intact, circa 1980-1988. Roland Charles Collection..
Crenshaw Plaza under construction, circa 1988. Calvin Hicks Collection, Box 1.
Intersection of Crenshaw and King Blvd, 1988. Calvin Hicks Collection, Box 1.
A strip mall of store fronts adjacent to the Crenshaw Plaza, circa 1980-1989. Roland Charles Collection, Box 78.
The Great Crenshaw Wall, an 800-foot mural that spans across the boulevard, 1998. Roland Charles Collection, Box 75.
Children and adults dancing in a drum circle near Leimert Park, affectionately called Africatown, 1998. Roland Charles Collection, Box 75.
A young girl pushes a younger girl in a stroller near the Leimert Park fountain, 1998. Roland Charles Collection, Box 75.
The Great Negus Wordsmith & Roots Empire, a short-lived arts venue in Leimert Park opened by Richard Fulton. “Negus” is the Amharic word for “king” and is a language revered among Rastafarians, a community that greatly contributes to the culture and spirit of independent entrepreneurship of Leimert. Fulton owned and operated several businesses in Leimert Park to give the community a space to express themselves creatively. 1998. Roland Charles Collection, Box 75.
A bus passes the temporary location of the famous Muhammad’s Temple of Islam 27 mosque on Crenshaw, after its original Broadway location was destroyed by an earthquake. The mosque was established by the local chapter of the Nation of Islam, with help from one of its most famous ministers, Malcolm X. Circa 1980-1989. Roland Charles Collection, Box 82.
Exterior view of the Blue Seas Bakery, a chain of bakeries throughout the US run by the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, a religious and black nationalist organization, had a strong presence in South LA. The community is well-known for funding its operations by running bakeries that distinctively offer bean pies because their former prophet, Elijah Muhammad, promoted eating navy beans. Circa 1980-1989. Roland Charles Collection, Box 78.
A panoramic view of Los Angeles from the hills of Baldwin Vista near La Brea Avenue, 1988. Roland Charles Collection.
Residents wait for the traffic light as cars pass by on a Crenshaw corner, circa 1980-1989. Roland Charles Collection, Box 82.
Two well dressed couples, stand and pose in front of the entrance of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza for a brochure advertising the mall’s offerings taken by Roland Charles, 1989. Roland Charles Collection, Box 21.
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke waving while riding a limousine convertible in front of Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza during the Kingdom Day parade. In 1992, Burke would be elected to represent the second district on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Guy Crowder Collection, 11.06.GC.N35.B5.47.158.34A.
Community organizers stand near a booth on Crenshaw Blvd. near Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. during a street festival sponsored by the Crenshaw Chamber of commerce and the LA Chapter of the Urban League. The festival sponsors sought to raise funds for community improvement projects. 1983. Guy Crowder Collection, 11.06.GC.N35.B25.10.112.16.
Three organizers wearing "Crenshaw! Toward a Greater Community" t-shirts standing on the corner of Stocker St. and Crenshaw holding a sign reading, "Left turn too slow?? Write Councilwoman Pat Russell," 1986. Guy Crowder Collection, 11.06.GC.N35.B11.25.37.08.
View from a balcony of the interior patio of West Community Development Center located on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. The West Angeles Church was founded in 1943 and grew to offer outreach and neighborhood development services, 1987. Guy Crowder Collection, 11.06.GC.N35.B23.34.207.18.
Exterior view of the Black Gallery, a gallery space specifically for black photographers to showcase their work, founded by Roland Charles in 1984 on Santa Barbara Plaza. The gallery struggled with vandalism and had its windows broken several times. The gallery closed its doors in 1998. Roland Charles Collection.

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