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Change In West Adams Is Happening. But There Should Be Space For Old And New

A purple color illustration of West Adams neighborhood that includes Victorian houses, Johnny's West Adams restaurant and a church that was built in the 19th century.
Some of the iconic places in West Adams include Johnny's West Adams, the beautiful Victorian homes and now new housing developments.
(Dan Carino
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If you’ve lived in L.A. long enough, you probably have a list of places you go to and feel right at home. Your barbershop, a community center, the corner where they sell raspados.

This story is part of our new show focusing on stories about L.A., for L.A., by L.A. Listen (and subscribe) to the podcast for more.

On my list is the Benny H. Potter Park in West Adams, the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s tucked in the middle of a residential area with a couple of basketball courts, an updated jungle gym and enough green space and benches for a family to share a plate of carne asada. It reminds me of my childhood.

Living in this area in the 1990s and early 2000s allowed me to get a sense of how this city has really changed. Let me just say this: West Adams is hardly the neighborhood 10-year-old Brian experienced.

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A mural painted black with pink letters that says: There was a time when it was bad to be Black; a time when Brown was illegal; a time when being gay or queer was immoral; a time when those less abled were abominable. There were times when being different was a vice. We reject those labels. For those historically undervalued, overlooked or cast aside we say now is your time, now is our time. We are creating a Band of Vices. We reject colonialism, we reject tribalism, we reject exclusivity, we embrace uniqueness, diversity and inclusion, we embrace love.
The mural on Adams near the Band of Vices gallery. The gallery was founded in 2015 and its headquarters is in West Adams.
(Megan Larson

What's Changed

Gang violence and racial tension from the 1992 uprising has mostly been swept away and trendy restaurants and shops have moved in. Alta Adams, a Black-owned soul food restaurant and wine shop, is a spot where Issa Rae and Kelly Rowland have dined. Highly Likely is a bougie coffee shop/wine bar that opened recently. Tartine Bakery has also set up shop. The neighborhood is definitely poppin.

A few streets over from the dining corridor, you can see development being constructed as new, fancy apartments go for upward of $3,000 a month. (Just a few years ago my parents were paying $1,200 for a two bedroom apartment).

West Adams was named Curbed L.A.’s neighborhood of the year in 2015.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg published a deep dive about how one developer is changing the neighborhood and what some folks are doing to keep it out of the company’s hands.

A street with several cars parked on each side. There's a mix of old buildings and new construction in this corridor.
Sandra's thrift store sits just a few feet away from a new apartment building near Adams Boulevard. She says developers don't care about the community and how they're impacting the area.
(Chris Farias

Why are they filling up these luxury buildings when my people are still on the streets?
— Sandra Revolorio, thrift store owner

There’s a mix of the new and the old, and some are feeling the new is overshadowing what’s been here.

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“Why are they filling up these luxury buildings when my people are still on the streets?” Sandra Revolorio told me. She's owned a thrift shop for eight years here and her store is just a few feet away from a new housing development.

And one thing that hurts her, she says, is that these developers forget about the people who are from here or folks who are unhoused.

History Of West Adams

West Adams isn’t a stranger to change.

Back in the early 1900s it was a wealthy white neighborhood. Then in the 1930s Upper-middle-class people of color started moving here, and West Adams became a center of the Black community in Los Angeles — more specifically in an area that came to be called “Sugar Hill.”

It was the place to be. There were salons and lavish Hollywood parties that attracted all sorts of folks.

A fight eventually started over who was allowed to live in these homes. Racist housing covenants stated non-white people could not own these homes, so white neighbors sued.

But Black residents rallied together led in part by Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel, and in a landmark decision, the judge presiding over that case sided with the defendants.

McDaniel and her neighbors got to stay in their homes.

The peace was short-lived, however. In the early 1960s many of the beautiful Black-owned homes in Sugar Hill were torn down to make way for the 10 Freeway. Still, West Adams remained a largely Black neighborhood into the 70s and 80s.

Japanese Americans also began to move into the area after World War II. And Latino families — like mine — eventually made West Adams their home, too.

What The Park Means For This Dad

Back at my childhood park I met Mario Luna.

He’s been coming to this park since he was a teen. Mario used to roll with a gang and has first-hand experience with violence in West Adams. He’s now 42 and has a kid.

Now it's a place where I bring my kids.
— Mario Luna

“You'll see people from all over different neighborhoods, different races, religion, everything,” Mario says. “Coming here [at the park], specifically because they've seen and they’ve heard of the changes, you know. Now it's a place where I bring my kids.”

Meeting Mario felt like talking to an old friend. We had similar memories about the area and we possibly could’ve been at the park at the same time.

He says he’s trying to do his part to improve the community — coming to the park, being friendly with neighbors and supporting local businesses. The one thing he doesn’t like that comes with the changes, or gentrification, is the entitlement that some folks bring.

“You've got to remember people like me that have been in the neighborhood for 10 years plus, we don't even feel entitled to it. You know, it's like, this is a community park, but I don't feel like this is my park,” he says.

A Staple Of The Community

Just a few blocks from the park is Johnny's West Adams. (Don’t confuse it for the other pastrami restaurant in Culver City — they’re not even the same owners.)

A mid-century modern restaurant sign advertising burgers, pastrami and hot dogs sits atop the Johnny's West Adams building. The backdrop is a blue sky, a palm tree and a new office building.
Johnny's West Adams has been around for over 50 years, and recently expanded to a bar next door.
(Megan Larson

It’s been around for decades. Since then, they’ve closed and reopened and expanded with a bar next door. One of my favorite producers, Kaytranada, has spun there on their Sunday Funday a couple of times. I was so mad I missed it.

If you go, you definitely have to try the pastrami sandwich, which they’re known for, but my recommendation is the crispy chicken sandwich and fries. Also, you can’t leave without trying their homemade ginger ale. Pro tip: go slightly earlier, or later, than lunch hour because it gets packed. Or order ahead.

Johnny’s is an example of a small business that has upped its game to keep up with the changes. But it still feels true to its roots with its old school signage and walk-up counter. The woman behind the counter calls me “sugar” every time I order, which makes me smile.

Tell us what makes your neighborhood special.