Photo retrospective shows cultural heritage of Central Avenue

Gloria Wilson on the new Ford DeLuxe outside her and her husband’s home on Maple and 30th St, circa 1953. Contributed by Lynda Wilson.

An ambitious photography project involving South LA’s Central Avenue community hopes to show there’s more to the area than a history of riots.

Documentary photographer Sam Comen, urban planner Jason Neville and members of the Central Avenue Business Association teamed up to create a first – person photography exhibition telling the history of one of LA’s legendary cultural neighborhoods.

“Central Avenue: A Community Album,” which premieres on Saturday, showcases a curated collection of historical photographs, dating all the way back to the 1940’s, submitted by neighborhood residents as well as new pictures taken by Comen in February and March of this year.

“We collected over 800 photos from the community from over 40 individuals and organizations,” says Comen. “That’ll be edited down to 200 photos shown in the community album in addition to 40 of my photos.”

During the early 20th century, Central Avenue was a vibrant African American cultural and commercial center. Economic problems and blight dilapidated the area throughout the years, made worse by the Watts riots in 1965 and the LA riots in 1992. Comen wants to help demystify the history and the area’s new reality.

Juan Carrillo, Zena Gramajo (seated,) Mariela Godinez, and Grecia Andrade photographed at Central Ave. and 41st St. on their way home from Jefferson High School on March 14, 2012. Photo by Sam Comen.

“South LA has two main narratives: one is the intellectual and musical narrative that took place during the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in a place that has made significant cultural contributions and the other is the riots,” Comen points out.

“Twenty years later, there’s going to be the temptation to dramatize and compartmentalize what has happened. These photos have documented the sweet moments in life. It’s important to show everyday and family life in light of the past tragic events. I want to open the discussion again with these photos. If I can broaden the conversation beyond those two narratives, then I’ll be satisfied.”

While canvassing the neighborhood in search of old photos to scan and capturing his own images, Comen discovered the area’s economy was improving.

“I didn’t know about the new Central Avenue. There’s a thriving and cohesive community there. I think it’s experiencing a renaissance.”

Demographic changes have transformed the Central Avenue community. Just like in many other neighborhoods in South LA, it has become predominantly Latino, a reality captured in this exhibit. The Community Album exhibit focuses on how cultural heritage and racial and ethnic diversity have contributed to building a thriving community.

Simon Redditt, age 105, in his apartment on Central Avenue on March 21, 2012. Now known affectionately known as “Papa Si,” Redditt has lived in the neighborhood since he moved from Memphis in 1938. Photo by Sam Comen.

With the recent closure of the California Redevelopment Agency, organizers of the exhibit felt it was necessary to take matters into their own hands to continue the revitalization of their neighborhood.

Comen says the Central Avenue business owners are attempting to bring cultural tourism to the area, through arts-based revitalization efforts like this exhibit.

“It was definitely a team effort,” acknowledges Comen. “We had business owners and people that work in the community reach out to their personal networks. We made posters telling people about the project, our team canvassed Central Avenue to speak with storeowners about spreading the word to their clientele. That’s how we ended up having so many people willing to participate. It just goes to show the cohesiveness and energy of this community.”

“Central Avenue: A Community Album” premieres Saturday, April 14, 2012 from 7:00 to 10:00 pm and will remain through Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Opening night will feature live music by a jazz quintet, courtesy of youth center A Place Called Home. Local small business owners will serve complimentary light food and beverages.

The exhibit is part of the annual Month of Photography Los Angeles (MOPLA) citywide annual initiative that showcases LA’s photography community, inclusive of commercial, fine art and photojournalism.

Speak Your Mind