The Rich History of West Adams, Once a Predominantly Black Suburb - NBC Southern California
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The Rich History of West Adams, Once a Predominantly Black Suburb

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Rich History of West Adams Once a Predominantly Black Suburb

    For more than a century, it has been one of the most prominent neighborhoods in Los Angeles and central to the dreams of so many African Americans seeking the American Dream in the City of Angels. And while there were times when it was neglected, now there's a birth of new interest in the district of Los Angeles known as West Adams. Conan Nolan reports for NBC4's Black History Month Special on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (Published Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016)

    West Adams is a part of Los Angeles that is slowly being rediscovered, with streets that speak to an era of grace, charm and beauty.

    Joe Williams is one of the many who knows the neighborhood that became known as "West Adams," and recalls the history of the suburb.

    "It went from an all white neighborhood to an all black neighborhood. Now you have a diversity that is really healthy," Williams said.

    West Adams is Los Angeles' first suburb dating back to the 1880s, with craftsman and Victorian designed homes, and mansions.

    The informal borders of the neighborhood run just south of downtown Los Angeles, from Jefferson north toward Pico Boulevard, and Figueroa west toward Crenshaw Boulevard.

    West Adams became home to some of the city's elite, among them was oil tycoon Edward Doheny, with his mansion and grounds now part of the campus of Mount St. Mary's University.

    Billie Green fell in love with the neighborhood and made West Adams the home where she raised her family.

    "I always wanted to own one of the big homes in this area," Green said.

    "On La Salle and Washington, there used to be a train stop and that is where all the rich people would take the train and go downtown to the city to work," she said.

    Green, 67, has lived in West Adam for 41 years.

    "My house is a craftsman, probably about 2900 square feet. I raised three kids there," Green said.

    The streets of West Adams, as depicted in the E-Book "Untold LA" contain some of the most extensive examples of classic American architecture.

    Some of those examples were the work of Paul Williams, the famed African-American designer and architect who made West Adams his home.

    Williams' legacy is heralded in a memorial outside of the building that housed the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company at Adams and Western Avenues — a firm dedicated to providing home loans to African-American families in search of the American dream.

    For decades, that was not easy to achieve in West Adams.

    "There were covenants. This area was developed saying white landlords only," said John Patterson of West Adams Heritage Association.

    "Hattie McDaniel had bought a house there. Louise Beavers had a home there and they were both sued by their white neighbors for breaking the covenant," Patterson said.

    That lawsuit, coupled with several others from the neighborhood, made its way to the U. S. Supreme Court.

    "The final judgment came down 'If these men can give their life and blood for our country, they can live anywhere they deserve to live," Patterson said.

    In time, West Adams became the home to black actors and musicians. Transplants from New York dubbed one incline of fashionable residences "Sugar Hill" after a section of Harlem of the same name.

    "Johnny Otis' house is around the corner from me," Green said. "Sugar Ray Robinson, he used to get his paper down the street on Adams and Western every morning."

    Butterfly McQueen, the Mills Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and attorney Johnny Cochran all had homes in West Adams.

    "I live across the street from a gentleman by the name of Cortland Mitchell, who was one of the first African-Americans to run for City Council in 1953."

    Cortland did not win, but a course was set.

    "They laid the groundwork for Tom Bradley," Green said.

    Over time, new developments started to lure the wealthy to more exclusive neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills.

    There was a period of decline and neglect. Then came the construction of a major east-west corridor: Santa Monica Freeway.

    "Some of the finest and largest homes and properties were taken out. They could go after one landlord and get a big chunk of property instead of a lot of smaller homes, and that is one of the reasons the 10 Freeway ended up going through that area," Patterson said.

    Now, decades later — and despite the multilane freeway through its center, West Adams is returning to its previous glory. Homes are being refurbished and services have been returned.

    "I tour people through the area all the time and they are surprised when they see beautiful homes, because it's not the perception of the neighborhood," said Rep. Karen Bass, (D-Los Angeles).

    Residents say they appreciate the diversity they now see in the neighborhood.

    "I love living here because it's one of the most diverse areas in the city of Los Angeles," Green said.

    It's all a part of a jewel slowly being reborn.

    "It's a wonderful, wonderful neighborhood to live in," Patterson said.

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