Jefferson Park’s evolution tells urban America’s story

This is the first of a four-part series on Jefferson Park and the changing urban neighborhood.

South Los Angeles has changed drastically over the past 150 years with many events adding to the changing face of the area.  Jefferson Park, an area just west of USC’s campus, is one area of Los Angeles that underscores these changes.

The neighborhood – a microcosm of urban America – is bound by Adams Boulevard on the north, Western Avenue on the east, Exposition Boulevard on the south and Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, as can be seen on the map below.

Boundaries of Jefferson Park

Boundaries of Jefferson Park

Today, Jefferson Park houses a mix of blacks and Latinos.  More than half of the community speaks a language other than English at home, and 35 percent were not born in the U.S.  The median household income is about $23,000, and approximately 30 percent of individuals live below the poverty level.  Although those outside of the community know it as an area ridden with crime and drugs, similar to the opinion of South LA in general, Jefferson Park is more than just a stereotype.

The area has more than a dozen pre-schools and elementary schools, more than 20 churches and other places of worship and several active community service centers. Children can always be seen relaxing or skateboarding in Leslie N. Shaw Park and adults can be seen chatting through barbershop windows. A handful of intricate murals can be seen from Jefferson Boulevard, reflecting the lives of Jefferson Park’s families, most of whom have lived there for decades.

Any neighborhood – especially one that is so intertwined with South LA’s rocky history – can only be fully appreciated when the past is considered. Though many of its residents have lived there for years, Jefferson Park once looked much different than it does today.

In the late 19th century, most of Jefferson Park was still farmland, but it soon developed into a streetcar suburb. A trolley ran up and down Jefferson Boulevard, allowing people’s houses to be built further apart from each other and from the city’s core.  Small family-owned stores and groceries started popping up all along Jefferson to provide easy access for the trolley riders.

Intersection of Figueroa and Jefferson, 1924

Intersection of Figueroa and Jefferson, 1924

At the turn of 20th century, Jefferson Park was one of the richest areas in Los Angeles. The predominantly wealthy white population of South Los Angeles built Victorian and Edwardian mansions on the hills directly to the north, dubbing the area “Sugar Hill.” In the flatter areas around Jefferson Boulevard, Craftsman style bungalows lined the streets – the same style that can be seen there today. Many Russians and Jews fleeing European pogroms came to Jefferson Park during this time, along with Germans and other white people of European descent.

Bungalow-style housing in Jefferson park

Japanese families moved into Jefferson Park in the next few decades, but they were forced into internment camps during WWII.  These families had to suddenly leave their businesses and homes, and most never returned.

Up through this time, racially restrictive covenants existed all over Los Angeles.  According to these covenants, blacks were only allowed to own property within a certain zone. In the case of South Los Angeles, this zone was encompassed by South Main Street to the west, East Washington Boulevard to the north, South Alameda Street to the east and East Slauson Street to the south. But in 1948, the Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer overturned all racially restrictive covenants. Blacks started to move west of Main Street into Jefferson Park – many at first into the old homes of the Japanese. This marked the beginning of white flight from Jefferson Park.

In 1950, freeways were constructed that further enforced segregation lines – most white people refused to go south of the 10 freeway based solely on false racial perceptions.  “Blockbusting” also began, where real estate agents sold homes to black families in predominantly white neighborhoods. After scared white families left their neighborhoods, the agents sold those homes to blacks for inflated prices. This was the start of white flight.

Many Creole families started moving to Jefferson Park, leading the area to be dubbed “Little New Orleans.”  The Legauxs, a well-known Creole family at the time, opened up Harold & Belle’s, which served as Jefferson Park’s chief gathering spot for meals, drinks and go-go dancing. The restaurant still stands today under the care of the Legaux family.

By the time of the Watts riots in 1965 – about eight miles south of Jefferson Park – white residents had essentially deserted the neighborhood. The area became predominantly black working-class residents due to the flourishing manufacturing base. But after manufacturers left the area in the 1980s and 90s, Jefferson Park became known as an area of widespread poverty and crime, specifically due to the influence of crack cocaine and gang activity. Of its entire history, this is the stigma that has stuck for Jefferson Park.

The infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992 further underscored this image, and left the community in a state of utter destruction. Middle-class families of all races abandoned their homes and have yet to return. But those who have remained in Jefferson Park did not let their neighborhood go to waste, which the churches, school system and strong sense of community demonstrate.

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