Memories of Bronzeville, a Forgotten Downtown Era

Kathie Foley-Meyer has an exhibit at LA Artcore about Bronzeville, the name given to Little Tokyo in World War II after African Americans occupied the community. They arrived after the area’s Japanese-American population had been move to internment camps.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Mention the term “Bronzeville” to most Angelenos and you’ll get a blank stare. Which is interesting, because 70 years ago it was one of the most important and timely words in Downtown Los Angeles.

Bronzeville refers to the Little Tokyo area that was vacated after the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens immediately following America’s entry into World War II. Itinerant African Americans came west from the South and Midwest in search of defense plant work and quickly took over the area. After the war, the Japanese Americans eventually repopulated the neighborhood as blacks moved west in the city. 

Few transitions in Los Angeles history have been as dramatic, or as fleeting. 

Artist Kathie Foley-Meyer remembers Bronzeville, or more accurately, imagines it in her new exhibit at LA Artcore at the Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo. Her show is part of the larger Project Bronzeville, which has events throughout the month, including a play, a panel discussion and a jazz show (see sidebar).

Bronzeville (the term surfaced around 1943) sat at the north end of Central Avenue, the heart of black L.A. All manner of business and enterprise (legal and otherwise) sprang up and fought for the Downtown space. Bars like the Cherryland Cocktail Lounge, nightspots like the Cobra Room and after-hours joints like the Finale Club featured some of the best jazz in Southern California. The well-appointed Shepp’s Playhouse had small bands in the first floor bar and elaborate stage shows produced by Leonard Reed and Foster Johnson upstairs. In 1944, trumpeter/composer Gerald Wilson started his band to provide music for a Shepp’s revue.

At First and San Pedro streets was the Civic Hotel (it had been the Miyako Hotel), which housed musicians like Charlie Parker, Teddy Edwards and Billy Strayhorn, as well as Scatman Crothers and other entertainers. The late saxophonist Jack McVea recounted taking Parker back to the Civic after a late night recording date at the end of 1945. With no explanation, Parker silently hurled his alto saxophone into the lobby wall, smashing it to pieces.

A half block west, tap dancer Foster Johnson presided over the Finale Club. Shows started at midnight, with liquor illicitly provided by a character on the fringe of the club. Exotic dancer Princess Starletta, comics, dancers and the Howard McGhee band worked all night long, drawing Hollywood people like Judy Garland as well as the Central Avenue crowd. 

Young trumpeter Clora Bryant, impressed by Central Avenue glamour, didn’t like the Bronzeville grit of the Finale. 

“I wasn’t used to a rough place like that,” she said a couple of years ago. 

Exploring the Neighborhood

For a woman who grew up on the East Coast and came to Los Angeles in 1987, Foley-Meyer has managed to pay knowing homage to the Bronzeville epoch and resourcefully give dimension to many of its dynamics. Her piece “Bronzeville” is a vertical glass cabinet with the letters on the front pane. Move around and read the montages of old newspaper and photo images that fade in and out with the changing internal light — it gives the feeling of a mercantile sign. 

The Union Center had been the Union Church, a pillar of Little Tokyo. “City on the Edge of Forever” is a period photograph printed on glass that depicts the busy corner of First and San Pedro streets sometime in the 1940s. The image is populated mostly with Japanese individuals, but a number of black figures are visible too, in particular a man at a newsstand. 

“That was James Hodge,” points out Martha Nakagawa, a journalist for Rafu Shimpo and Pacific Citizen and a historian of the area. “He opened that stand about 1943 and kept it until the early ’80s. Everybody remembers him.”

In August 1946, Bronzeville coin machine operator Jay Bullock was profiled by Billboard magazine. The article stated that the neighborhood held 60,000 blacks and 15,000 returned Japanese Americans. Noting the thick population, Bullock observed, “Four years ago it was a ghost town.”

When Foley-Meyer began visiting Little Tokyo, she asked herself whether African Americans had ever lived there. 

“I was putting coins into the meter,” she recalls, “and I wondered that aloud. A woman in a nearby store was in her doorway and heard me. She closed her door and I thought, ‘Yeah, we’ve been here.’ It felt kind of haunted to me.”

The centerpiece of Foley-Meyer’s show is her quietly brilliant three-paneled “Bronzeville III.” Three long vertical panes have frosted words on them. Each relates to the period (“Kiichi,” “Club Rendezvous,” “buronzu,” etc.). At the top of each pane are Japanese characters for “copper,” “blue” and “town.” (Combine copper and blue and it mixes into bronze.) They’re illuminated by slowly changing lights. In front are cast hands in brown resin, signing different letters. As the light changes, the words disappear, capturing the transitory nature of the brief era.

The Bronzeville legacy is difficult to discern, even from the vantage point of seven subsequent decades. “It’s hard to say what the sum total was,” avers Nakagawa. “After three or four short years it just disappeared.” 

As the city ate up whole sections of Little Tokyo in the 1950s (the Parker Center complex supplanted a good chunk of the area), Japanese-American residents were up in arms. They were particularly worried about the proposed loss of a section north of First Street where the city wanted to put up office buildings. Ruben Lovret, a member of the City Planning Commission, was sensitive to the action and surreptitiously schooled activists on how to get historic status for the First Street buildings. 

“He’s an unsung hero,” Nakagawa said. “He worked with Reverend Toriumi of Union Church and they were able to hold onto what was left of First Street. The Japan Towns in San Francisco and Stockton were lost because they didn’t know how to gain historic status.” 

Bandleader Gerald Wilson is still composing and performing, making him the oldest active jazz orchestrator in the history of the music. The block of First Street that housed the Civic Hotel and the Finale Club still stands. For a part of town that was incredibly vibrant for such a short time, Bronzeville was, in the words of the late broadcaster Will Thornbury, as bold as neon and as transitory as skywriting.

The work of Kathie Foley-Meyer is at LA Artcore, 120 Judge Aiso St., through June 30. Open 12-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun., (213) 617-3274 or laartcore.org. Project Bronzeville information at projectbronzeville.com.


More Bronze

Kathie Foley-Meyer’s show at LA Artcore is only part of Project Bronzeville. The effort to capture a forgotten era in Los Angeles history also includes:

Bronzeville, a play from the Robey Theatre Company at the LATC June 29-July 21. Written by Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk and directed by Ben Guillory, it concerns an African-American family who moves into a home formerly owned by a Japanese family, only to find a member of the family hiding in the attic.

A panel discussion about the Bronzeville era on June 22 at the Downtown Independent theater. It will be moderated by Dr. Christopher Jimenez y West and Dr. Hillary Jenks.

A jazz concert on June 23 at Blue Whale, featuring the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble. 

Additional information is at projectbronzeville.com.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013