For Part 1 of the People’s Guide series, “Fear of Space: Pershing Square, Not-so-public Parks, and the Fight over Public Places,” click here.
“WHY SHOULD WE visit invisible places?” someone asked at a recent bookstore event. We had just mentioned a site for a building that never actually existed: the vast industrial lot at the edge of downtown that was the location of the proposed East Los Angeles Prison, which in the late 1980s was successfully defeated by the Mothers of East L.A., a community group. There are many “invisible places” in our book — sites where structures that once existed have changed or been destroyed or, as in the case of the proposed prison, never existed at all.
So why visit? For one, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there anymore. I learned this when I was photographing a nondescript discount clothing store on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. This address was the former site of the Silver Dollar Café, where the beloved journalist Rubén Salazar was killed by an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy on August 29, 1970 while covering the Chicano Moratorium – the largest antiwar demonstration on the part of any ethnic group in the United States. At the time of his death, Salazar was being investigated by both the LAPD and the FBI, who opposed his increasingly critical news coverage. A coroner’s panel ruled that the killing was a homicide, but the officer was never brought to trial. It was a story that gained national attention, thanks to Rolling Stone magazine, with Hunter Thompson’s "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.” But now, 40 years later, as I stood before the discount clothing shop that once was the Silver Dollar Café, did anyone remember? I began snapping pictures. People stopped their cars nearly in the middle of the street to speak to me, either to say, “I know what happened there!” or to ask what had happened. The act of photographing — and being seen to photograph — the invisible place became more than an exhumation of history. It became an affirmation.
As a photographer, it is also a formal challenge — how do you make an absence present? At the former site of the building that housed the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) Los Angeles headquarters (leveled after an LAPD raid destroyed the building in 1969), you might take 20 steps back, so you can see how the still-empty lot makes for a conspicuous, sun-filled gap in between a building that was once the BPP building’s twin and a two-story strip mall selling all manner of goods and services. At the strip of Vermont Avenue in Koreatown that, from the 1940s through the 1960s, was home to two working-class, multiracial, butch lesbian bars, you might squint your eyes and imagine the warm, secretive anticipation the bars’ clientele felt as they turned onto this block from 8th Street; and smile at the name of the store that currently occupies one of the addresses: “King’s Jewelry and Loan.”
Black Panther Party members in their South L.A. office in December 1969, days before it was raided and destroyed by the LAPD. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.
Visiting the site of the proposed East L.A. Prison, you might realize that you have never been to this part of town — that it is poor and industrial; adjacent to air-polluting, idling trucks; neighborhood-destroying freeways; and working-class communities of color. Something that didn’t make sense before might start to make sense. You might realize that “invisible” can mean many things: it might mean vulnerability to early death; it might mean a community’s hidden history of pride and resilience. It might mean the fissure just under the surface that will shake the earth when it is tapped.
Black Panther Party Headquarters (Historic South Central)
4115 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles 90011 (between E. 41st St. and E. 41st Pl.)
The former site of the Black Panther Party headquarters, photographed in 2007, is now a parking lot flanked by a Mexican market and small businesses. Photo by Wendy Cheng.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was the leading revolutionary nationalist organization in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The organization was founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, and the Southern California chapter was established in 1968 under the leadership of Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. The BPP defended the Black community against the police, created “survival programs” that focused on meeting people’s basic needs, and built bridges with other organizations across the globe that were fighting poverty and oppression. In 1969, the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, proclaimed that the BPP “represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Soon after, the Los Angeles Police Department launched a predawn raid on the headquarters of the Southern California chapter of the BPP, which was located at this address. Committed to obliterating the Panthers, the LAPD initiated the attack in search of illegal weapons and two Panthers wanted on assault charges. The four-hour gun battle, which deployed the newly created Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, involved hundreds of officers attacking the building. The LAPD fired thousands of rounds into the building, used a battering ram and helicopter, and subsequently trashed the inside of the building. The roof of the building caved in. The attack resulted in the injury of three Panthers and three patrolmen and the arrest of eleven Panthers. Soon after the attack, the BPP leadership called for a retrenchment and the relocation of party members to Oakland, contributing to the eventual demise of the Southern California chapter.
810 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles 90005 (between W. 8th and W. 9th Sts.)
831 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles 90005 (between W. 8th and W. 9th Sts.) (Koreatown)
Former home of the If Cafe and The Open Door. Photo by Wendy Cheng.
From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, this block on Vermont Avenue was home to two working-class, racially mixed lesbian bars: the If Café (also known as the If Club) and the Open Door. “Crowd of butch girls, men in 40s, others from area,” read the Barfly gay bar guide’s description for If Café in 1966; for the Open Door, the same guide noted simply, “Same type crowd as at If Café.” The clientele of both bars was Black, white, and Latina, demonstrating that queer life in Los Angeles did not exist only in white and affluent areas but was also embedded in working-class communities of color. Women at these clubs developed a strong, oppositional community, with their own styles and slang; for example, butch Black women termed themselves “hard dressers.” Women’s experiences at the If Café and Open Door also remind us that homophobic and racist police practices overlapped in postwar Los Angeles. Police frequently raided the bars and arrested patrons, charging women either with “masquerading” — that is, wearing men’s clothing — or prostitution. While some lesbians did work as prostitutes, many such charges were false and were used simply to harass and criminalize women who did not meet dominant gender and sexual norms. Black women, who were already more likely to be perceived as “loose” or “deviant” by the dominant culture, faced increased risk of arrest for lesbian behavior. The If Café and the Open Door stayed open for years and produced a vibrant culture that carried over into activism and community life among lesbians of color in subsequent decades. (Courtesy of Emily Hobson)
Jewel’s Catch One
4067 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles 90019 (323) 737-1159
Nearby, though not in the immediate vicinity. Established in 1972, Catch One is the oldest continually running Black-owned gay bar in the United States. The owner has developed a range of projects and initiatives that support the health of local residents.
Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant
2717 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 108, Los Angeles 90006 (213) 380-1113 (www.beverlysoontofu.com)
Steaming bowls of Korean tofu soup served with rice and high-quality banchan (vegetable side dishes).
Proposed East L.A. prison — Nearest address is 1600 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles 90021 (cross street: E. Olympic Blvd.; prison would have occupied the entire block) (Vernon)
Proposed Vernon incinerator — 3961 Bandini Blvd., Vernon 90058 (between S. Downey Rd. and S. Indiana St.) (Vernon)
Proposed site of the East L.A. prison, 2008. Photo by Wendy Cheng.
In the late 1980s, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) sought to build a reception center (i.e., a prison) in East Los Angeles in order to house California’s expanding prison population. A group of local residents formed the Coalition Against the Prison to fight the CDC, because they felt that the city’s poor and minority communities were already burdened with more than their share of dangerous and undesirable land uses. This initiative eventually gave birth to the Mothers of East L.A. (mela), which waged a David-and-Goliath-type struggle against the CDC. They challenged the CDC’s environmental impact report (EIR) — a planning document that outlines the anticipated positive and negative consequences of a proposed development — which in this case was grossly inadequate and underestimated the negative impacts on local communities. The organization also confronted cultural insensitivity, such as the CDC’s refusal to provide appropriate translation, and a host of racist assumptions, including the comment made by one public official that the Mexican American women should be thankful the prison would be located nearby, because their children were the ones most likely to be incarcerated. mela, which was joined in its suit by the City of L.A., won a major victory when Governor George Deukmejian decided he would no longer consider this site as a possibility. This particular struggle was one of many that marked the start of California’s unprecedented prison expansion project. Over the past several decades California has built the largest prison system on the globe. Critics have argued that prisons are California’s (and increasingly the United States’) ineffective response to complex social and economic problems, such as poverty and lack of employment opportunity, that demand real solutions.
MELA was soon called upon to mobilize again when the California Thermal Treatment Service sought to build a hazardous waste incinerator in the city of Vernon. This plan was partly a response to Southern California’s massive trash problem. City officials in Vernon welcomed the incinerator, despite the fact that it was expected to burn many thousands of tons of hazardous waste annually and would add to the region’s acute air pollution. Amazingly, the local regulatory agencies did not require an EIR for the incinerator project. Both the failure to require a full EIR and the plan to site such a facility adjacent to the Latina/o Eastside were seen as blatant acts of environmental racism. mela, in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council, successfully blocked the project.
These two struggles — resistance to the prison and to the incinerator — and the effort by women in South Central Los Angeles to block another incinerator, the lancer project, were key events in the development of the environmental justice movement in Los Angeles (see entry 3.1 Alameda Boulevard: The “White Wall,” South Central Incinerator, and South Central Farm).