Discover the Real Green Book's Los Angeles
Exploring the city through one of the key documents of Black History
The 2018-2019 movie award season in Los Angeles honored Peter Farrelly’s film The Green Book with multiple major awards, including the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Screenplay. It also brought much deserved attention to the historical Green Book itself, a key document of Black History in America that also serves as a sobering entry point to a conversation about daily life during segregation.
The Green Book was published by Victor H. Green (giving the book both its name and distinctive color) from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. Green, an enterprising black postal worker in Harlem, compiled a yearly travel guidebook for “the Negro motorist.” At a time when legal segregation was in full force not only in the Jim Crow South, but all over the country, the guide’s motto—“Carry your Green Book with you. You may need it”—made it an indispensable glove compartment fixture for any person of color riding America’s fabled interstate highways.
“Not only were black Americans shut out of pools, parks, and beaches, they couldn’t eat, sleep, or even get gas at most white-owned businesses,” writes author, photographer and cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor in the “Overground Railroad" section of her website, Taylor Made Culture. Taylor is an expert on all things Green Book and has been researching a project on the remaining and (mostly) vanished sites featured on several editions of the guidebook.
Taylor’s project (see video above for her documentary on Route 66 and the Green Book) is not merely an exercise in nostalgia—she uses the historical Green Books as road maps to an ongoing tale of segregation, unfair housing practices and also neglect for Black History landmarks. Black travelers, as Taylor explains on her website, “had to navigate a country with thousands of ‘Sundown Towns,’ all-white communities which banned blacks from their city limits after dark.”
The guides themselves included testimonials from thankful business travelers that found the inventory of gas/food/lodging and other business establishments that would not deny service to black customers essential.
“When I first started jumping from place to place, just like white commercial travelers have been doing for time immemorial,” wrote an ESSO oil company executive in the 1947 Green Book, “the folk in many, many places looked with fear and doubt upon the traveling man from beyond the borders of their own county.”
And then he added:
As Taylor has pointed out, “it was assumed the West was more liberated than the South, but thanks to the enormity of the American West’s expanses, in some ways it was even more dangerous. The farther west people traveled, limited services were available—for whites and especially for blacks.”
On her website, Taylor has identified 224 businesses in the Los Angeles sections of the Green Book, from 1939 to 1967. “These sites of sanctuary,” Taylor writes, “play a critical role in revealing the story of African American travel and represent the struggle and the triumph of finding a warm meal and a safe place to rest.”
Here are some of the Los Angeles locations featured on the Green Book as local havens for Midcentury black travelers.
The Alexandria Hotel (501 S Spring St, Los Angeles 90013) was one of the DTLA properties that briefly appeared on the Green Book (1962-1964) as the desegregation process that began in the mid-1950s reached momentum. By then, the building, which in the early days of Hollywood had been the luxurious party hub of the movie colony (think the Chateau Marmont or Sunset Tower of a much more debauched era), had become a casualty of the Great Depression and had been stripped of most of its earlier grandeur.
By the late 1980s, the building had fallen into disrepute and was reportedly overrun with drug dealers. It eventually became zoned as a low-income housing property. In the 21st century, refurbished parts of the Alexandria have become in-demand as movie locations, including Dreamgirls and Spider-Man 3. Most recently, the early-20th-century-themed mixology bar The Wolves opened on the Spring side of the landmark building.
Clifton’s Cafeteria (648 S Broadway, Los Angeles 90014) was the second in a chain of restaurants opened by Clifford Clifton. The 1935 location, originally called Clifton’s Brookdale, was a quintessential New Deal-era enterprise, offering affordable food to everyone on a “pay-what-you-can” basis.
Confirming the Christian, liberal bona-fides of its owner, Clifton’s Cafeteria was featured on the Green Book from the 1940s through the 1960s as a welcoming restaurant open to all people, regardless of race or skin color.
The Broadway location is the only one of the six Clifton’s properties still open. It was renamed Clifton’s Republic and reopened after a complete renovation in 2015 to much civic fanfare. The ground-level Cafeteria service, however (as of this writing, early 2019), has been quietly discontinued in favor of the more upscale bars and entertainment venues upstairs.
The Biltmore (506 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90071) is, like the Alexandria, another DTLA property that opened their doors to black travelers during the Kennedy era, as desegregation was rapidly spreading throughout the country.
Like the Alexandria, the Biltmore’s original heyday had been much earlier. The Biltmore had been the party venue in the 1920s—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed on site in 1927 at a banquet, and the hotel was a frequent venue for the Academy’s famous awards (aka, the Oscars) during the 1930s and 1940s.
By 1964, as Green Book historian Candacy Taylor points out, the Biltmore opened its luxurious ballrooms and conference rooms to NAACP events and other gatherings promoting Civil Rights and desegregation.
The Biltmore is now known as the Millennium Biltmore, right across Pershing Square, and its public areas have been maintained in the “lush life” style of its American Beaux Art glory days. It is still one of DTLA’s crown jewels, and the setting of a myriad of swanky scenes on film and television.
Some of the Green Book locations are now located in areas that are off the tourist’s beaten path. Though not far geographically from the Biltmore and the Alexandria, the Regal Hotel, which opened in 1939 and was sometime known as “The Finest Negro Hotel on the Coast,” sits now squarely in a much less glamorous area south of Downtown.
As Taylor has discovered in her research, the Regal’s decline (a fate shared by the nearby Hotel Norbo) is not uncommon for many of the Green Book sites, something that will hopefully be addressed through Black History awareness and conservation efforts.
The Aster Motel (later known as the New Aster Motel, 2901 S Flower St, Los Angeles 90007), a fairly typical mid-20th-century no-frills motel featured in the later Green Books as black-traveler friendly, may still sport a distinctive vintage sign, but everything else about it seems fairly sketchy. From its functioning status (it's been variously reported as shuttered or still operating) to its controversial association with the infamous Black Dahlia murder (about which there is endless and probably unsolvable speculation), the Aster cannot shake its aura as a perpetually haunted locale out of a David Lynch waking nightmare.
A Historical Landmark since the mid-1970s, the legendary Dunbar Hotel sat at the hub of Central Avenue excitement (4225 S Central Ave, Los Angeles 90011) during LA's jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. Built in 1928 as Hotel Somerville, the classy venue most famous as the Dunbar hosted black luminaries and musicians back when Los Angeles could unofficially be (and feel) as segregated as a Southern town.
The hotel's nightclub was world famous and witnessed the prowess of a who's who in black entertainment at their imperial prime—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Nat King Cole are but some of the names that held court at the Dunbar.
The Dunbar was a constant through different editions of the Green Book, as a comfortable, black-owned and operated local option for business travelers. After the Civil Rights era, the building went through several transformations until a full restoration in 2013. It is currently used as low-income senior housing.
Allums Drug Store
You won't find much evidence of Allums Drug Store (4375 S Central Ave, Los Angeles 90011), another Green Book staple, at the busy Central Avenue and Vernon intersection that is still one of the commercial convergence points of this formerly Black neighborhood.
Allums could be quite literally a life-saver for travelers who fell ill. Medical attention and access to medicine were two of the areas in which segregation most directly impacted the lives of African Americans, and the many listings for pharmacies were one of the most useful features of the Green Book.
However, this access to drugs was separate but by no means equal. For example, Candacy Taylor points out that "many of Allums Drug Store advertisements listed in the Los Angeles Sentinel during 1947-1955 were for 'Prapion' medicine to settle stomach ailments." However, thanks to Internet transparency, one can now—unfortunately—reveal that the records of the Federal Trade Commission show that back in 1936, R. M. Kallejian of "Prapion Laboratories" had been warned by the FTC not to advertise that his patent medicine product "is a competent treatment or an effective remedy for all stomach disorders," or for a laundry list of ailments including "Nervous indigestion," "Stomachic conditions," "Hyperacidity," "Gastro-Intestinal disorders," "Gas," "Sour Stomach," or "Constipation."
Though Kallejian explicitly agreed to stop claiming "that this preparation will rid one of any difficulty [,] that this product is a stomach remedy [...] and from making any other claims or assertions of like import," only a few years later he was offering the Prapion Remedy to black customers through Allums Drug Store.
Other Green Book Sites of Interest
There are many other Green Book sites of interest throughout the Los Angeles area. Readers might want to peruse the collection of Green Books helpfully digitized by the New York Public Library for more local sites.
Some of the locations listed are not public buildings, like the discreet private home at 2881 Seattle Dr., deep in the Hollywood Hills, listed on the 1948 Green Book as James W. Brown's "Tourist Home" (think of a midcentury version of an AirBnB) that welcomed black travelers.
Other sites are harder to locate in the modern urban landscape, like the long-razed "Kentucky Tavern" or "Stacy’s gas station" (both in Pasadena).
One of the most mythical Green Book entries is the intriguingly named "Zombie Restaurant," which operated at 5432 S. Central Ave. around 1947/1948, moved to 4216 S. Central Ave. in 1949 and operated there for ten years. According to the Green Book, in 1960 the operation appears to have moved to 4906 S. Wadsworth Ave., and then the Zombie Restaurant disappears from recorded history, not even leaving behind a poignant little matchbook.
Last Stop: "Bronzeville"
Though many locations around Central Ave. and DTLA appeared in the Green Books of the mid-1940s, an important part of Black life in Los Angeles, particularly nightlife, was happening in a location that does not appear on any current maps—at least by its famous name—circa 1942-1947.
"Bronzeville," as Angelenos knew the area in that period, would be familiar to jazz fans then and now as the location of several clubs and hotels frequented by entertainers in the era when Charlie Parker was helping jazz transition from the pre-war era into the legendary period of Be-Bop.
(For a taste of you-could-be-right-there sound and ambiance of a Bronzeville club, check out the field recording above, taped at the Finale Club in March 1946, featuring Parker and a very young Miles Davis.)
So where was this mysterious "Bronzeville"? Look no further than the area we now call Little Tokyo. Here's the story: after the Pearl Harbor attack, when the U.S. Government displaced a vast number of Japanese-Americans into internment camps, several enterprising African-Americans from the segregated Central Avenue area moved up into the abandoned homes, hotels and storefronts in what had been Little Tokyo. This so-called Bronzeville - a thriving, temporary Black neighborhood with an instant reputation for raucous late-night entertainment - lasted until just after the end of World War II, when the rightful Japanese-American owners returned to reclaim their property.
For more on the history of Little Tokyo and the Japanese-American community in Los Angeles, visit the Japanese American National Museum.