Where Is the West Adams Community?

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Category: Our History
Published on Sunday, 03 December 2017 13:14
Written by Mitzi Mogul & Laura Meyers
On April 1, 1984, news came over the airways that Motown singer Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed by his own father at the family home on Gramercy Place. The media couldn’t seem to agree on where the house was located. The Los Angeles Times said it was in “the Crenshaw District.” Other outlets referred to it variously as South Central Los Angeles, Mid-Wilshire, and, later, even Hancock Park. Actually, the house is right in the heart of West Adams.

How could they get it so wrong? Is the name of a community so difficult to figure out?

Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when a portion of the Santa Monica/10 Freeway was damaged, people were directed to use alternate routes that included Washington, Adams, and Jefferson Boulevards. Trying to turn a difficult situation into something positive, longtime West Adams resident Norma Reynolds lobbied CalTrans for freeway signage which acknowledged the east/west edges of the West Adams District. Those signs are still there, stating “Historic West Adams, Next 6 Exits.”


Oct15House2So you would think that it has become easier to identify what is or is not West Adams, but apparently it has made it easier for the media to get it wrong. And now that “West Adams” is considered a popular, even hip, place to live and work, there is a push from some developers, too, to apply the name as far west as Fairfax – far outside the West Adams District.

So a little primer: the real West Adams is a larger “District” with a collection of two dozen individual pocket neighborhoods named more than a century ago after what was once its primary thoroughfare, West Adams Boulevard (then West Adams Street). The District was and is located adjacent to, and north and west of, the University of Southern California and Exposition Park.

Beginning in the 1890s until World War I, some of Los Angeles's wealthiest citizens built ostentatious mansions on West Adams Street, soon nicknamed "The Street of Dreams," while developers laid out dozens of tracts and exclusive enclaves in what they called the "West Adams District" (not yet "Historic" West Adams District) in their promotional materials, an area stretching from Flower Street on the east to West Boulevard on the west, from Exposition Boulevard to Pico/Olympic.

Oct15House1The “West Adams District” (which we now call the “Historic West Adams District”) or the “West Adams Section” became a well-known place that held cachet. We see the “West Adams District” referred to all the time in historical newspapers. By 1916, there were dozens of individual pocket neighborhood/tracts within West Adams – now with neighborhood names we know today, like Harvard Heights, University Park, West Adams Heights, Angelus Vista, West Adams Avenues, Victoria Park,
Adams-Normandie, Western Heights, North University Park, Country Club Park, Gramercy Park, and so on. All in the West Adams District.

West Adams Boulevard itself extends all the way from Main Street to Culver. But the neighborhoods west of West Boulevard – about six blocks west of Crenshaw -- were established later, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, on what was previously undeveloped farm and ranch lands.


Oct15house3bSo why the confusion now? Basically, 15 years ago local residents living west of Crenshaw Boulevard and south of the 10 freeway decided to name their new neighborhood council "West Adams Neighborhood Council" – over objections from West Adams Heritage Association (WAHA) and residents of the "real" West Adams District, all citing confusion and potential mix-ups. The projected
confusion has now become very real, with media and some local investors now co-opting the name "West Adams" for an area that never was a part of the West Adams District, historically or even in recent decades.

And it is confusing. For example, about a year ago a shooting occurred at a Jamaican pop-up restaurant on Rimpau, near La Brea and Jefferson. That area is adjacent to Baldwin Vista, a significant distance from West Adams, and yet, in a reversal of the Marvin Gaye situation, in which the neighborhood was called everything except West Adams, this recent incident was widely reported as having happened in West Adams. Which was a surprise to people who actually live in West Adams!

Since the early 1980s, there have been efforts to eliminate the media’s use of over-generalized “neighborhood” names, especially when they lumped together the huge swath of land from Downtown to San Pedro as an all-purpose designation of “South Los Angeles.” Then-Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas (now a Los Angeles County Supervisor) launched a neighborhood naming project he called “What’s in a Name?”  Thirty years ago it was difficult to get people to use the name “West Adams.” Now it is applied so liberally, to such a wide area, that it is losing its ability to convey its place both in history and on the map.

West Adams was and still is a district, as opposed to a neighborhood, which is more local and specific. For instance, Harvard Heights is a neighborhood within the West Adams District. So are Jefferson Park, Arlington Heights, Kinney Heights, and others. Today’s neighborhood names often reflect the original tract names; these areas have precise boundaries and it is helpful to utilize them when describing a particular of West Adams. Not only is it helpful to those who don’t live here, but it helps residents to understand the context of their neighborhood. It provides a sense of place by offering a unique identity rather than a general location.

Sometimes specific place names have far-reaching historic significance. West Adams Heights, located between Washington and Adams Boulevard (but now bisected by the 10 freeway), Western and La Salle, was developed as a high-class neighborhood by wealthy white businessmen. When prominent African-Americans began to buy property there, racism reared it ugly head. Eventually, a landmark court case was fought over the right for African-Americans to live in the neighborhood—indeed any neighborhood of their choosing. In 1945 history was made when the case was heard in Los Angeles Superior Court, with the Judge disallowing the enforcement of restrictive racial covenants.

It was the precedent used in an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court which effectively canonized the decision as law. West Adams Heights and the events of 1945 hold a unique place in legal history as the “ground zero” for the early steps in the modern Civil Rights Movement with regard to housing discrimination. It is important that this issue occurred in West Adams Heights, not just West Adams. Not Arlington Heights, not Pico Heights, not Crenshaw Heights. And yes, within the Historic West Adams District.

A version of this article previously appeared in the West Adams Heritage Magazine.

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