There are a few remaining who witnessed the glory days of the historic Dunbar Hotel at 42nd Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles. It was the focal point of the local World War II generation. It was where a burgeoning Black bourgeoisie gathered to mix and be seen forging a new middle class stripped from the privations of racial discrimination and entrenched segregation.
In its heyday, the Dunbar was for Blacks a West Coast mixture of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and the Cotton Club. Because Los Angeles was segregated then, the Dunbar was the only first-class hotel that would host African Americans.
In 1930, the original Hotel Somerville (built by John and Vada Somerville, the former being the first African American graduate of USC) got its famous name from poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and became a signifier of the social advancement of Black Los Angeles.
Prior to that, African Americans were prohibited from residing or operating a business south of 12th Street, with the small exception of the desegregated Clark Hotel at Washington Boulevard and Central Avenue. During the war years, Black families began to move southward along Central Avenue. These tiny steps down the vaunted thoroughfare provided a pathway to a later generation of residents who would stride proudly into L.A.’s most fiercely segregated neighborhoods–from Sugar Hill to Baldwin Hills.
The Dunbar is poised to return to its former architectural glory. Extensive refurbishment began in late 2012 to provide 40 one-bedroom senior units, starting at $448 per month. The Dunbar Village project is part of a $29.3-million development plan spearheaded by City Councilwoman Jan Perry (Ninth District) to pique new interest in a once pivotal portrait of Black life. Completion is expected this Spring.
“Central Avenue and the Dunbar Hotel have long been an important part of our Los Angeles history,” Perry said. “It is wonderful to see the avenue come alive again and know that this historic landmark will be restored for people to enjoy for generations to come. Dunbar Village will preserve our shared history, create quality jobs for local youth, and offer much-needed affordable housing for families and seniors.”
Seeing the property as part of a mission to preserve and highlight the rich culture of Central Avenue, developers Thomas Safran and Associates and a local not-for-profit, Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD), believe they can meet the needs of the area and the community. “The renovation of the Dunbar Hotel exemplifies both the history and unity of our community,” said Mark Wilson, executive director for CRCD. “We are creating a true example of holistic community and economic development, both of which benefit all Vernon-Central residents.”
The two contractors have implemented a youth-oriented construction-and trades-training program that will place participants on-site for jobs ranging from construction, painting, and maintenance and graffiti removal. They expect to create 158 construction jobs and 15 permanent positions.
“We needed to breathe new life into the Dunbar,” Perry continued. “It is the heart and soul of Central Avenue and the epitome of bringing back the glory of Central Avenue.” Perry is the third African American councilperson to represent the ninth district, following 40 years of service by Gilbert W. Lindsay and a brief period by Rita Walters.
Though a transplant to Los Angeles, Perry has hosted for 12 years the Central Avenue Jazz Festival there. In her three terms at City Hall, Perry has made remarkable gains in improving the sight lines of South L.A. Among these are the residential/commercial improvements along Central Avenue at 24th Street, Adams Boulevard, 37th Street and her ultra-modern Constituency Center near Vernon Avenue.
Her other noteworthy achievement is the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park at 54th Street and Avalon Boulevard, and a smaller such facility at the Gus Hawkins Nature Preserve at Compton Boulevard and Slauson Avenue.
The new Dunbar will have improved on-site amenities for residents, including a community room with a commercial kitchen, a media lounge, a billiards table, a library/reading area, a laundry room and a fitness center.
There will be ground-floor retail outlets, a new public plaza on Central Avenue, the Museum in Black (designed to showcase the historic names in local Black history), a Head Start Childcare facility and a computer center operated by Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Also, the existing Somerville I and II Apartments will be connected to form an 83-unit mixed-use intergenerational community for seniors and families.
The Dunbar, along with the Lincoln Theater at 23rd Street, hosted during the 1930s and 40s such jazz legends as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson. Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson operated his “Showboat” nightclub at the Dunbar during the 1930s. A young Tom Bradley knew the Dunbar as a rookie police officer. Old-timers would recall him walking his Central Avenue beat and stopping in for coffee and conversation. “I remember, from the days of my childhood, walking down the Avenue, just to get a look at some of those famous superstars,” Bradley said years ago.
Black political leaders, writers and businesspersons, when visiting Los Angeles, stayed at the Dunbar, including W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson as well as local leaders H. Claude Hudson, Col. Leon Washington and William J. Nickerson and George A. Beavers, the latter two the founders of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.
Black luminaries were not the only notables to frequent the nightspot. Bing Crosby was a regular attendee at jam sessions and concerts, likely picking up Black rhythms-and-riffs to take back to Hollywood recording studios. The late bondsman Celes King, whose family owned the hotel briefly in the 1940s, told the story of the entertainer bouncing a check there: “We called him up to straighten things out, and had a laugh over it,” King recalled. “I kept that check in a frame in my office … it became a conversation piece.”
Lionel Hampton had fond memories of “jam sessions” and rehearsals on the hotel mezzanine: “Everybody that was anybody showed up at the Dunbar,” Hampton said. “I remember a chauffeur would drive Lincoln Perry (Hollywood’s Stepin Fetchit) up to the curb in a big Packard, and look out the window at all the folks.” The food there was best described as “… good old southern-fried everything,” Hampton noted.
When the barriers against integration began to crumble in the late 1950s, so did the Dunbar. The stars could stay at any hotel in town and, with the music muted, the glory days of Central Avenue had effectively ended. In the mid-1980s, a $4.2-million renovation of the hotel and adjacent buildings saw it reduced from its original 115 rooms to 72 low-income apartments, a museum and a cultural center. City officials say that project was ill-equipped and poorly managed against a changing demographic, increased poverty and a crime wave then involving gang violence and drug trafficking. Today the neighborhood is primarily working-poor Latinos, some Asian residents and bare remnants of Black households.
“It is a positive effort taking place at the old Dunbar,” said Derrick Blakey, an electrician with subcontractor with Keystone Construction. Blakey’s uncle was the world-renowned jazz drummer Art Blakey, who played the Dunbar several times. “There is an effort here to include more Black tradesmen during the construction process … that is beneficial for young people getting started in the construction profession. This is a good thing for Central Avenue.”