Crenshaw Blvd rolls down 23 miles from the mansions of Hancock Park to the cliffs of Palos Verdes. On the way, it crosses freeways and streets with names dear to the Black community, says Leimert Park resident Shaka Satori.
“You have Obama Blvd, you have Martin Luther King, and Slauson — which is Nipsey Hussle Square. That section of the 10 is the Rosa Parks freeway.”
But the man Crenshaw Boulevard is named for was white.
When George Lafayette Crenshaw was developing properties in 1904, Black people weren’t allowed to live anywhere near Crenshaw Boulevard. Restrictive covenants were written into property deeds in the area. Banks denied loans to African Americans and any other “undesirables” who tried buying homes in LA’s white-only neighborhoods west of Main Street and East of Alameda.
In 1948, a landmark Supreme Court decision, Shelley v. Kraemer, said courts could not enforce restrictive covenants that had allowed neighbors to sue if a property owner sold a home to anyone who wasn’t white. But residential patterns didn’t change much until the 1950s and 60s, when a massive wave of Black Americans arrived in Los Angeles.
“Black people, middle class people started moving west into nicer houses in the Crenshaw area,” says local historian Alison Rose Jefferson. “By the time you get to the late 60s or early 70s, you have more African American small businesses opening up amongst the white businesses and some of them are pretty high profile. It became a very important place for some black middle class people to move.”
One of those new residents was Nate Holden, an engineer who was elected to LA ‘s City Council in 1987 representing LA’s 10th District, which includes a large stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard. By that time, it had become the center of the Black middle class life in LA.
Holden was not a fan of George Crenshaw. “Crenshaw — he’s a guy who supported protective covenants,” Holden, 91, tells KCRW. “That being the case, we should change the name.”
In 2003, Nate Holden was set to retire. As one last gesture in office, he decided to rename the seven-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard running through LA’s Black community after Tom Bradley.
Bradley — the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of enslaved persons — had been a Los Angeles police officer and then an LA City Council member. In 1973, he became the city’s first – and only – Black mayor. He retired in 1993 and died in 1998.
“He served the community well over 50 years,” Holden says.
“Tom Bradley was a hero of that civil rights generation,” journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan tells KCRW. “Crenshaw is synonymous with the Black community. Tom Bradley was a longtime resident of Crenshaw. So [Holden figured], what better person to represent the community — and to name the street after?”
The proposed change from Crenshaw to Tom Bradley Boulevard also resonated on a deeper level. Back in the days of restrictive covenants, when Bradley and his wife moved to the Crenshaw area, they needed a white intermediary to buy their first home.
On June 25, 2003, Nate Holden introduced a proposal to rename a stretch of Crenshaw after the former mayor. It would be a celebration of Bradley’s legacy and an illustration of Holden’s power.
"Nate Holden figured this would be a no-brainer,” Erin Aubry Kaplan tells KCRW. “What happened was — not only did he not really get support for this proposal, but he got active opposition.”
At the hearing, City Council Member Ruth Galanter — who is white and at the time represented the northern San Fernando Valley — didn’t question Bradley’s legacy or his right to be memorialized. Instead, she pointed out, “We already have a Tom Bradley Boulevard here in the city of Los Angeles.” It was a tiny stretch of First Street by City Hall, which the Council had, just a few years earlier, voted to rename after Bradley.
And Galanter wasn’t the only one opposed. To many Crenshaw area residents, the renaming proposal felt like a City Hall edict.
“This is a motion based on a couple of phone calls based on his decision that it’s going to be Tom Bradley Boulevard,” Shaka Satori said at the 2003 public hearing. “The community is supposed to be represented. There was never any efforts made. At least see what the people want. At least let the people decide. No more good old boy behind the scenes closed door sidebar politics! Please!”
Nate Holden tells KCRW that his team collected thousands of signatures. But Erin Aubry Kaplan says his proposal had an even bigger problem.
“There was also a sense that Tom Bradley, in retrospect, was not very good for South Central LA — or Crenshaw — as mayor. His political attention was downtown, on the Westside. He did forge these coalitions that people felt were very historic. But in the end, South Central, as my father used to say, went down on his watch.”
In the wake of LA’s 1992 civil unrest, Kaplan explains, "There was a lot of talk from local politicians — ‘We’re going to rebuild these neighborhoods’ — because Crenshaw suffered a lot of damage. But not much happened. People really felt elected officials were failing them.”
And then, finally, Holden’s constituents had another objection to the name change. Was Holden trying to rename Crenshaw just to honor Bradley? Or was he also trying to get rid of the old name?
In a 2003 LA Weekly article, Kaplan described how the proposed renaming had inflamed local frustration with City Hall, while aggravating internal divisions within the Crenshaw community:
“Crenshaw is unique: It is dear to both the black bourgeoisie and the younger, rougher-edged hip-hop set that has valorized Crenshaw in song and video as the main artery pulsing through the West Coast’s most significant black ‘hood. In an age in which blacks are strictly polarized by class, Crenshaw is both a dividing line and a rare point of cohesion.”
Holden and the renaming advocates seemed to be saying that the name Crenshaw bore a stigma — and that the community might be better off calling it something else.
At the 2003 hearing, Tom Bradley’s goddaughter Melanie Lomax argued, “As it stands now, Crenshaw is but a mere shadow of its former glory days. I believe that Tom Bradley would give this major artery a tremendous boost, and the image that is more in line with the aspirations of most of its residents and business owners.”
Holden, in one of the last public statements he ever made as a City Council member, took the argument even further.
“We just have cruisers and bruisers in the Crenshaw area. People have said, ‘I’ll drive by Crenshaw, but I will not drive on Crenshaw.’ I think we can bring some civility to that community.”
Shaka Satori tells KCRW, “I think he should have — and could have — used better words than that. Specifically the word ‘civility.’ To say it would ‘bring civility’ is to infer that it doesn’t already have it.”
And he has another problem with what Nate Holden did in 2003. Satori and other Crenshaw residents had already been working for eight years on renaming a portion of Crenshaw Boulevard. But they weren’t advocating for Tom Bradley.
“Malcolm X is a symbol in history,” says Leimert Park resident Torrence BRANNON-Reese, who led an effort to rename that same stretch of Crenshaw after the slain civil rights leader. “Even if you're not Black, if you've been destitute, if you've been marginalized, if you've been discriminated against.”
BRANNON-Reese, who produces Leimert Park’s annual Malcolm X Festival, believes in the transformative power of names. “When you put your name on something, you brand it. And when you brand it, people understand that it represents you and who you are.”
The Malcolm X renaming proposal got 20,000 supporting signatures — but no response from City Hall. Erin Aubry Kaplan thinks it’s possible, though, that it gave Nate Holden the idea for his Tom Bradley proposal.
“I don’t know for sure. But I think there’s a connection,” she tells KCRW.” I think that this was Nate Holden’s version of street naming. And this was the proper naming, this is what we should be naming streets after. ‘Respectable people,’ you know?”
For his part, Holden denies any link between the renaming efforts. “For whatever reason,” he tells KCRW, “Some people might say, ‘Well we don’t want Nate Holden to get credit for the name change.’”
The City Council ultimately voted down Holden’s Tom Bradley measure. A follow up vote unanimously sent it back to committee for further review and more community input. Nate Holden retired a week later. And what happened to his proposal to rename Crenshaw Boulevard?
“It died,” says Erin Aubry Kaplan. “This was Nate Holden’s idea anyway. No one was sitting around thinking about doing this. And once he was gone, there was no reason to continue with it.”
In 2003, Kaplan wrote a fitting epitaph:
“Neighborhood groups were satisfied, not least because at the heart of the matter are two very big issues for black people — cultural sovereignty and the power of identity. Questions of who gets to name us and why rattle us right down to the bones and reverberate through the ages, from slavery on through to the rap billboards routinely posted along Crenshaw that offer the recording industry’s latest takes on “real” black images, lest we forget what they are.”
Today, Shaka Satori and Torrence BRANNON-Reese are working on a new proposal. This time, instead of replacing Crenshaw with Malcolm X, they want to place them right next to each other — a co-naming. BRANNON-Reese says their co-naming proposal has received community support from 3000 organizations, civic groups, churches and neighborhood councils.
“Malcolm X to this day is still looked at as a controversial figure,” he tells KCRW. “And what does controversial mean? America is controversial. But who writes the history? Who gets to dictate the story?”
For now, one of the streets most closely associated with LA’s Black community is still named after Crenshaw: a man who built houses exclusively for white people.
This is part of Greater LA’s new series on local streets — how they got their names and what they say about past and present life here.