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A Brief History: How South Central, South LA Got Its Name

So we’re still at odds with the name region. 

In my last post, I asked a group of people about what they call this region. South LA or South Central. In this blog, we’re going to dive into some brief history on how this region developed.

To understand this question, we’ve really got to dive deep into a map.

This region doesn’t have clean boundaries at all. In a very poor simplification, the modern region is bounded by the 10 Freeway to the north, La Cienega, La Brea, and Crenshaw Boulevards to the west, 120th Street to the south, and Central Avenue to the east—with at least a dozen exceptions to this. Here’s a much more accurate depiction of the South Los Angeles boundaries

Let’s look at the very first neighborhood in this region: Historic South Central. 

Historic South Central 

Bounded by Washington Boulevard, Flower Street and Vernon Avenue, Historical South Central ran along Central Avenue to the east. Central Avenue holds an incredible history as a main thoroughfare in Los Angeles that, at one point, ran across the middle of early Los Angeles (before it expanded, of course). 

South of Washington Boulevard, Central Avenue was home to many black businesses and residences, had a booming streetcar line, and quartered the black jazz hub of Los Angeles between the 1920s and 40s. Just North of Washington Avenue, Central Avenue cuts through the Fashion District and ends in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles’ oldest Japanese neighborhood.

So this surrounding area quickly adopted the name South Central—a black, working class neighborhood that ran next to the south part of Central Avenue.  

Nearly 70 percent of the Black Los Angeles population lived in South Central up until the midpoint of the century and it was severely overcrowded. Many other black residents lived in Watts, and a few other pockets around the city. 

But don’t think that all black and other minorities lived here by choice. They lived here because of the law. As Los Angeles began to boom in the late 1800s, lawmakers across this region created housing covenants—real legislation that prevented minorities—specifically including Asians, Mexicans, and Blacks from buying homes in certain—well let’s be frank, more desirable—areas. In fact, realtors were bound to the covenant. And the Federal Housing Administration even denied loans in areas that were not covered by covenants. Environmental scientist Dorceta E. Taylor found that up to 80 percent of Los Angeles was off-limits to minorities. The free-to-watch PBS documentary series City Rising covers housing covenants.

In 1948, the United States Supreme Court Shelley v. Kraemer made housing racial discrimination covenants unconstitutional—that’s nearly 70 years after the city was developing. So much for getting in while home prices were cheap…right? Anyway, for Los Angeles, this meant minorities could no longer be confined to South Central or Watts. This was later reinforced with the American Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Once the housing covenants were dismantled, many working-class and affluent black residents diffused the bounds of Historic South Central. More affluent populations settled west near Crenshaw, including Baldwin Hills, and Leimert Park. Working Class minorities went south, past Slauson Avenue, which was a major racial divide at the time. While it became legal and enforceable for minorities to live in these areas, there was white flight. And, well, there were race-based terror attacks that followed.

Of course, there was so much more that has happened in this region, but we’re focusing on these barebones facts to see how this region developed, and how South Central/ South LA got its name.

Next episode we’re going to be tracking the usage of the words South LA and South Central over the 20th and 21st century


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