How a Cowboy Helped Me Learn L.A.’s Hidden Black History
From The Nickel to Skid Row, the city needs more people telling its stories
In January 2018, on an unexpectedly rainy day in Los Angeles, I found myself on the streets of Skid Row. Precipitation has a notable effect on southern California when it actually strikes, but east of South Los Angeles Street downtown, it was just another Thursday morning.
Walking east on 5th Street near Crocker Avenue, I passed an elderly Black man sitting in a chair next to a plastic container of assorted paraphernalia and cigarettes. I incorrectly assumed that he was a well-organized addict.
The old man caught wind of my sentiment. “I’ve never smoked dope in my life!” he said indignantly. He explained that he served in Vietnam with the elite 82nd Airborne Division. “Strike force!” he proclaimed as if he was reciting an army recruiting film. “I used to blow up fields of that shit in Vietnam!”
I apologized for being presumptuous and explained why I was there: As a filmmaker, I was looking for a story for a documentary I was hoping to make centered on the neighborhood.
“You ever hear of The Nickel?” he asked.
When I told him no, he said, “You’re standing on The Nickel. The Nickel is 5th Street between Central and San Pedro — did you know 5th Street used to be all Black people? All of this was owned by Black people. I used to own that building right there, the Brownstone.” He pointed to an old SRO at the northwest corner of 5th and San Pedro.
“We went from freedom riders to freedom fighters.”
“Celebrities used to come down here to party,” he continued. “Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole … and it was all Black-owned.”