When you drive down Central Avenue, there's a conspicuous lack of movie theaters, art galleries, theatrical venues and music halls. In fact, most of the visible signs of artistic inclination that can be seen throughout the community are street murals and graffiti art.
The lack of art spaces in the South LA community isn’t a new issue -- but it remains one that has yet to be solved.
“The arts have really not been emphasized in this area in a long, long time – probably decades,” said Vivian Bowers, owner of Bowers & Sons -- a family owned dry cleaning business which has operated in Central Avenue community for more than 65 years.
At one time, the Central Avenue community was a cultural hub.
“Central Avenue, from the turn of the 20th century to, about, the early 1950s grew and developed into what they called ‘Black Hollywood’ and primarily featured jazz, blues, dance and good food,” said Bowers.
But eventually this vibrant community began to change, and after the 1965 and 1992 riots, the community is still trying to recover in many ways. South LA has been hit hard especially by the recession and many of the schools in the area lack funding to build and maintain comprehensive arts programs.
The schools that do provide arts education programs can only afford to do so on a limited basis and with the threat of more extensive budget cuts looming in the near future, South L.A. schools may not be able to provide arts programming at all.
A Place Called Home (APCH), a local nonprofit organization located on Central Avenue and 29th, is one of the only community centers in the area that is dedicated to exposing and educating South L.A. youth in the arts. Their focus is primarily music and dance. APCH works to provide youths with an outlet for self-expression as well as a safe place to keep them busy, stimulated, and out of trouble.
Charyn Harris, lead music consultant at APCH, believes that if there were more emphasis in the arts for these kids, and for the population as a whole, that it would result in a healthier and more vibrant South L.A.
“I have this theory that when you introduce something like the arts to a community, even on a grassroots level, it can really have a strong impact on the community and on what the kids are doing and how they start maneuvering through their lives,” said Harris.
Harris goes on to explain that funding is not the only issue. There is a stigma attached to South L.A. which prevents people from wanting to come into the community, to invest in it or to make improvements. Vivian Bowers agreed that the stigma attached to the community continues to prevent people or businesses outside the community from coming in, investing in Central Avenue, and revitalizing its economic and cultural climate.
“We’re forgotten over here. We’re an island,” said Bowers. “We have to find a way - and I believe all of us working together will find that way - to let people know that this area, and the children thereof, are worth their investment and their time, but it’s going to take the removal of that stigma and bad press.“
However, the lack of art spaces in the Central Avenue community does not mean that art is non-existent.
Abe Flores is an advocacy field manager with Arts for LA – a regional advocacy program which works with communities, throughout Los Angeles County, to advocate for greater investment in the arts. He said that the while formal art spaces are few and far between, art still exists in the community.
"Sometimes the art happens in the parks or in the churches, so there’s a lot of informal art that happens in these areas, but not necessarily consistently," said Flores. "There is a difference between if there’s access, what is within the reach of that access and what sort of access exists and a lot of that can be hard to quantify. Regardless, in terms of actually having art centers and facilities to go to, there is a big dearth in South L.A.."
Despite the problems within the community – families living below the poverty line, lack of funding, lack of gainful employment opportunities and very little support – Bowers and other community advocates remain hopeful that sometime in the future, South L.A. will thrive again.
“The fact of the matter is,” said Bowers, “along with the bad elements here, there are still wonderful people here who are genuine hard workers and who believe in having a good, rich life.”