Address Los Angeles, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, explores the lesser-to-unknown corners of LA: be it an address, an artist, or a fleeting thought.
By 1905 Jacob Adloff was enjoying a great degree of success. In the 27 years since he’d moved to America from his native Germany, he’d made a name for himself bottling and distributing beer, was a partner in several saloons, and had married into a well-established pioneer family. At the age of 45 his prize investment was surely Vienna Park — a beer garden, restaurant, bowling venue, outdoor space and gathering area.
Spanning 20 acres Vienna Park was often raucous, with concerts, fairs, ample evening illumination and manicured gardens. Located at the corner of Western Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard, in what is now called Jefferson Park, Vienna found itself just outside of city limits — until 1896. As history is cyclical, local pressure and a growing city wrapped it within its bounds, reigning in the parks more libidinous behaviors.
Nearby, Charles Victor Hall was becoming a small-time oil tycoon, and owned several properties near Adloff’s which were occupied by the cities more prominent and wealthy (read: less Eastern-European) citizenry. Hall, under the guise of an Improvement Society, set out to convert the land into a public park, driving the crowds, and Adloff, away. And while no bucolic utopia was to come, Adloff likely read the writing on the wall. He subdivided his lot and set out to sell — but not before building at least nine homes on his own plots, some of which still stand in the neighborhood today. Adloff had many other interests in his care, including a popular saloon on the corners of N. Main and Chavez, in the heart of old Chinatown and on the site of the future Union Station.
Simultaneously, racial covenants were making moves to ensure that an area which had come to see some of the greatest diversity of European immigrants and descendants stay white. In 1928, ruling on a case involving a tract of land mere blocks from the former site of Vienna Park, the California Supreme Court ruled that the covenants could continue to bar occupancy by non-Caucasians — but not the ownership of the land itself.
This distinction is important to understand, as it meant that anyone who had previously subdivided their land, and stated that said plots could only be occupied by Caucasians, was still free to do so. But if an owner subdivided and set no such covenant, anyone could own and live on that land. It’s unclear if Adloff’s sub-division was a direct fuck-you to the racist land owners nearby, but his deeds contained no covenants at all. Soon enough, a smattering of wealthy African-American families were living along the northwest corner of Jefferson and Western.
By 1940 the population of Jefferson Park included a growing number of Japanese-American residents, and the corners of Jefferson and Western were a hub of non-Caucasian activity in a sea of racial division across Jefferson Park.
Two such residents, Rokusaruro and Sada Kawahara, were immigrants from southern Japan. Rokusaruro arrived in 1897 at the age of fourteen, Sada followed him in 1910 – likely thanks to an arranged marriage, thereby eluding the 1910 “Gentleman’s Agreement” which barred the immigration of unskilled Japanese laborers – unless it was a wife married to a man already in the country. By 1929 the Kawahara’s had moved from Little Tokyo into a home located on the former Adloff plot. Under Sada’s name they opened a nursery and florist down the street; just a block off the busy Jefferson-Western intersection.
The Kawahara’s stayed in their home for nearly fifteen years, raising a daughter and expanding their business. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was only a month before members of the state government, including the Attorney General (and future Governor and Chief Justice of the United States) Earl Warren – were calling for the internment of Japanese-Americans. Within three months the camps were open, and on the 27th of April, 1942 the Kawahara’s were interned at Granada, aka Camp Amache, in the desert of Colorado. It’s unclear if they ever returned to Los Angeles.
If they did, they returned to a rapidly changing Jefferson Park. Loosened laws on segregation and covenants led to a quick rise in African-American residents. These new homeowners, combined with many Japanese-Americans, led to tremendous white-flight, and by the second half of the century the neighborhood was overwhelmingly African-American. As the years went on, a series of racial mixed families moved in and out of the homes that had replaced Vienna Park – businesses came and went, mini-malls were constructed. In 1952, across the street from where the Kawahara’s New Garden Nursey had stood at 3101 S Western Ave, the very first Fatburger opened. Founder Lovie Yancey was a fixture at her burgeoning franchise, and the patronage of local African-American musicians, from local sessions players to a 22-year old Ray Charles, helped her build an empire.
But by 1971, the situation south of the freeway was eroding. Erected in the 1950s and creating a segregation buffer, the I-10 accelerated the redefinition of Los Angeles. Watts and Compton were famously hit the hardest, but all of Los Angeles, including Jefferson Park, found itself struggling. The Bloods and Crips gangs were forming, crime was rising, industry had left, and the generation that had ushered in the racial change of the neighborhood was now searching for new homes further from the city center.
It was at this moment that Dr. Byron R. Spears Jr., DDS, son of the Evangelist Bryon Spears (aka The Walking Bible), started Bee Gee Records. It’s formation was ceremoniously announced in Billboard, heralding the venture as “a new black-owned record label,” located at 3101 S. Western Ave. Within four months Bee Gee had a second location in Hollywood, and was finishing a third up the coast in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Spears Jr., who continued to practice dentistry throughout his life, set out to do contemporary gospel. Either by choice or through the influence of his fast-growing executive team, early Bee Gee releases remained a few steps away from God, but never ventured too far into sin. By 1974 Spears was cleaning house and buying out his partners, but not before a group of singers, most likely in the circle of performers who backed Quincy Jones throughout the 70s, recorded four songs with a legend of the Los Angeles funk and soul scene, Gene Page. Those singers, under the name 21st Century Ltd., recorded two of those tracks for Page’s work on the film Blacula, one of the earliest Blaxplotation b-movies.
The other two tracks were released on Bee Gee; the A-Side written by Jones collaborator Charles May. It is a vibrant, funky, and uplifting tune with a killer beat drop, that demands listeners to ask themselves, “At the end of the day/Tell me do you have the nerve to say/’I will sleep tonight/Cause today I did what was right’/But tell me, have you ever said to yourself/’What kind of world would this be/if ever’ybody in it were just like me?’”
The song, the group, and the label never got too far off the ground. It didn’t chart, the band stayed in the background, and Bee Gee was folded by 1976 having taken a few steps closer to God, but none towards profitability. Spears Jr. took his money and talents to the newly formed Birthright Records, which soon moved to Pasadena. Today, 3101 S. Western Boulevard is a Latino, Pentecostal church, with evening services most nights at 7:30. The original Fatburger across the street is still there, kinda, incorporated in a 66-unit affordable-income housing complex – it was considered too much a part of Los Angeles history to be bulldozed.
Jacob Adloff, having passed in 1918, could not be reached for comment. words / b kramer