February 03, 2022

By Stanley Robertson

Staff Writer


Like seeing the deep lines in the face of an old woman who was once the beautiful belle of some forgotten cotillion in another age, it’s hard to stroll along Central Avenue today and picture the way it was in its heyday.

When was its heyday?

Exact dates are hard to come by. Maybe there never was a heyday. Merely a geographical illusion, which existed in the minds of the Negro in Los Angeles in his search for better living conditions.

Historians, however, would probably agree that Central Avenue flourished between the late 1920s and the end of the World War II.


Central Avenue was never just a street! It was a state of mind, a whole community, a way of life and a sociological adventure. It was New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, and the back-o-town sections of Birmingham, Dallas and New Orleans rolled into one.


Central Avenue was a gay cluster of nightclubs, cafes and dance halls attracting the leisure moments of a depression-ridden people who were in the process of surmounting some of the greatest obstacles ever faced by a people any place.


It was a community of shady, pepper-tree-lined streets – streets on which resided a cross-section of Americana of the times.

A wealthy Jewish family, who could afford to send their son to exclusive Black-Foxe Military Academy, lived in what is now the 900 block of 42nd Place.


A top executive of one of the nation’s foremost Negro insurance firms of today lived across the street. Maids, laborers, postal employees and a nightclub dancer – both Negro and Caucasian – lived on the same street.


The area, too, was one of extreme prejudice. The old Tivoli Theatre, located on the spot of the current Bill Robinson Theatre, for a number of years had a policy of not welcoming Negro trade.



Until Sentinel Publisher Leon H. Washington Jr. came along with his historic, “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work” policy, Negroes were not employed by merchants of the area.


There was great poverty, too, here, particularly until the great preparedness boom in the aircraft and shipyard industries shortly before World War II.

It was unusual to see a school-age child not wearing the drab clothing dolled out to needy families by the government. There was a mammoth food distribution center near the intersection of 57th and McKinley at which families queued up for blocks to receive the surplus corn meal, flour, dried fruit and potatoes – staples which kept millions of Americans alive.

However, due to the booming film industry, which reached new financial peaks while the rest of the country went broke, Los Angeles Negroes did not suffer as much as those in other areas.


There are many alive today who are living off the “looting’ privileges” domestics to film colony greats received.

There was also the WPA, later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the butt of many jokes.

Central Avenue flourished during troubled times, but, it was also a naïve era. Probably the last true “Age of Innocence” the Negro will ever experience.

As a child, I remember the long, pleasant, Sunday afternoon strolls from church.

A time when everyone dressed in their “Sunday-go-to-meetin’” clothes and exchanged pleasantries with their neighbors. An after-church malted milk was the reward for all children who minded their manners in church.

Nobody had money as we know it today and the big events were the Sunday School picnics at Lincoln Park, a neighborhood birthday party of a pal at a which ice cream and cake was a real treat.


The teen-and-twenty crowd took their “dates” to weekend dances at the old 28th Street YMCA or to the latest hit movie at the Florence Mills Theatre, long closed out of its Jefferson and Central location by the advent of television.

For the really “big spenders,” a Sunday afternoon boat ride in Westlake Park and a snack at a popular malt shop located on Central where several businesses have come and gone since the ‘30s, was “living high off the hog.”



The soda jerk at the popular stand – the name of which I’ve long forgotten – was a handsome Negro boy from Jefferson High School who made and broke celebrities by the mere fact that if he recognized you and called you by your first name, you were “in.”

Like the age he symbolized, the boy is no more. He died quite tragically in the Aleutians during World War II while on active duty with the Navy.

For those older and seeking more adult pleasures, there were dozens of nightclubs, which flourished and disappeared. The “Last Word,” the “Memo,” and the “Zanzibar,” only to mention a few.

The “Club Alabam,” located in the Dunbar Hotel, is probably the only remaining bistro, which sparkled during this era. As good as it may be today, it will never again approach its former greatness.

During the 1930s, the Club Alabam was the most famous Negro nitery on the West Coast, and one of the best known in all America. It was nothing to see carloads of Hollywood and Beverly Hills celebrities pull up in front of the club for an evening’s festivities.

Through the now-departed chorus line at the bistro danced some of the real beauties of their day. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was one of the many big names who got his start there.

What caused the decline of Central Avenue?

Like the age in which it flourished – the depression-ridden 1930s – prosperity caused the fall of Central Avenue.

The 1940 census revealed that there were 39,000 Negroes in Los Angeles. A booming defense industry, a great period of Negro migration from other areas ignited by a peoples’ search for greater opportunities, sent that figure skyrocketing to the estimated 450,000 Negro population in the county today.

As more people came and as more opportunities opened, it was only natural that new living areas would have to be found. Some went South toward the Watts, Compton, and Willowbrook areas. 


Others West across Western Avenue, then Crenshaw, La Brea and now, even further West.


Hundreds, too, went to Pasadena, Long Beach, San Pedro and the many other small towns, which encircle the city proper.

As new areas opened, and are opening daily, new patterns of living develop shopping centers, friends, schools and ties are centered in these local areas.

There is no longer the need to confine oneself to an area like Central Avenue.

Central Avenue will always remain with us. The businesses, shops and merchants will always do a thriving business.

There will always be a need for housing, school, churches and recreational areas in the area.

But, no longer will it be “the main stem” for Los Angeles Negroes.

For those of us who remember when, it’s sad to see the old street go.

But in another way, it’s a happy sadness because it emphasizes the gains Negroes have made.

“The Main Stem” is gone, and, because of the trend in living, there will probably never be another such street for the Negro in Los Angeles.

Category: News