Not long ago, as I stood among some of the men I grew up with, including Steve Butler, I got encouragement that I may end up being the man to write whatever gets written about our cohort - The People of the Dons, The Babeless Crew, and GDZ Productions. It's a bit of a hairy predicament but I'll leave those fears aside and put in another brief installment. I do so at this particular moment because a Wombat asked me to, and plus I think it's a good moment post-Obama acceptance to look a bit closer at my generation of post-Civil Rights black men and women of moderate privilege.
GDZ stands for geographically desirable zipcode, and I think that I have to give props to a man I'll call Slim. Slim was a founding member of The Babeless Crew and we were a dozen or so young black professional men making our living in the South Bay of Los Angeles County during the 80s and enjoying the rich social scene. Slim was notoriously frugal and he had checked out all of the happy hours and scientifically determined which one gave the most food for the lowest prices. But when we weren't bargain hunting for free beer and hot babeage, our default hangout was The Golden Tale, a bar and nightclub in El Segundo on the bottom floor of a 15 story office building which was the headquarters for Xerox Systems Group. El Segundo was and remains a hub of aerospace and military contractors, Xerox, Hughes, Raytheon, McDonnell Douglas, Aerospace, TRW and all the others. Most of the Crew worked in that area. The South Bay included the cities of El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Palos Verdes and Torrance - some of the hottest property in the country, not to mention the home of surfers and the beach volleyball capital of the world. Some of us grew up there, most of us were transplants, but a good number of us grew up in close proximity.
The Dons were and are a part of what has consistently been, since the 1960s, one of the most affluent concentrations of African Americans. That section of Southwest Los Angeles, home to several distinct black neighborhoods including the Dons has never had one overarching name, but 'Crenshaw' has come closest to that. Ladera, West Adams, View Park, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, The Dons, Ladera Heights, Morningside Park, The Jungle, The Village Green, Blair Hills, Jefferson Park all are part of a large area that has been a dynamic network of poor, middleclass and rich blacks for many years. There are churches, schools, streets, restaurants, clubs and people who form a rich tapestry of imagination defining the commonalities and the differences between hundreds of thousands of blackfolks who were and always have been more than just 'the black community'. Most of the Babeless Crew were from or near the Dons, one of the nicer neighborhoods.
I grew up in the area now called Jefferson Park in a residential neighborhood marked by large front and backyards, fruit trees and streets with names like Victoria, Somerset and Buckingham. When we first moved in around 1964, there were still a few whitefolks remaining. The elementary school, Virginia Road, was the main attraction - its principal Mrs. Edna Cohen was a prominent leader of that august organization known as The Links. Like most blackifying neighborhoods on the verge of their racial tipping points, black families were the first to own the houses and only certain companies would provide mortgages. The Lomas & Nettleton handled our three bedroom, two car garage house for $177 a month in 1966. Prior to that we rented a small apartment upstairs from the Martins one of the first black property owners on our street. Mr. Pickett owned three of the two story fourplex apartment buildings on our block. He was a slick haired man who drove a Cadillac and seemed meaner than he probably was. We couldn't wait to hang out on the slick surface of the red stoop he repainted every year to a slippery gloss.
Like most blackfolks, I looked up to the neighborhoods of View Park and Baldwin Hills with awe and pride. I could pick out Ray Charles' house on the days Pops would find some reason to drive through that way. Our friend Alan Ward still lives up that way as do many other families. If you were black in Los Angeles, it was always assumed that the ambitious would end up in that fine area. I'm sure Mr. Pickett lived up that way too, as did many of the owners of apartment buildings in Leimert Park. In LA, there were only one or two other places considered nicer for blacks to live, one was Beverly Hills and the other was Fremont Park. Muhammad Ali lived in Fremont Park, so you can figure how out of the question that was for most of us. So when I arrived finally at Loyola High and discovered other young black men as exceptional as I thought I was, it came as no surprise that a goodly percent were from those neighborhoods.
As my liberties increased, and when I finally got my own car, I found myself enjoying the social company of the black crowd from the hills. Jefferson Park was no ghetto, but it was no suburb either. It was the kind of neighborhood like Brooklyn was often romanticized by New York Jews as a mecca of stickball, open hydrants and city gardens, where kids play pick up sports all summer and where putting up your dukes was an occasional requirement. Those requirements had not escalated much until the invention of crack, but while I was still in my teens, there were sophisticated attractions to the Dons, not least of which were the ladies. So you might catch me as rowdy as Ice Cube and dusty as Spartacus on a summer afternoon of swimming and doing flipflops at Dorsey Pool, now walking home on the railroad tracks on Exposition Boulevard. But on Sunday morning at Church of the Advent, or Saturday night at a house party on Olympiad, I was as smooth as Billy Dee - no scratch that, make that Clifton Davis.
Eventually by the time I was done with college and decided where I would live, the South Bay became home. Of course there were challenges. Back in the pre-Cosby 80s, young black urban professionals were largely unknown to the public, and to police. If you were fortunate enough not to get the runaround from racist landlords and actually get an apartment near the beach, it took about six or seven traffic stops for the cops to finally figure out that you were one of the black people that belongs, sorta. I and my compatriots established ourselves firmly through a series of GDZ events including our beach parties which became semi-legendary in black LA social history.
There is a buried history of a generation growing up in an expanding social world of crossover and black pride, of conflict and contrast between rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, predator and prey, radical and conservative in black Los Angeles. But like many things in Los Angeles' great sprawl, it was marked by the lines of streets and territories, some geographically desirable and some geographically undesirable. This is part of my life story. It happened somewhere between the GU and the GDZs.