Recalling South L.A. As It Used to Be

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2010

Paul Dimitri is among the last members of the original band of South Los Angeles scrappers and survivors.

He was a newspaper-selling, fruit-stealing, cigar-smoking teenager who once narrowly escaped arrest while working for an underground bookie on 54th Street. And he was a proud Greek American boy whose earnings helped support four siblings.

This was some 80 years ago. Dimitri’s corner of South L.A. was almost entirely white, and his friends were, for the most part, of Southern, Central and Eastern European stock. They were a hardworking lot, and hard-fighting when they had to be.

“They hustled in those days,” he told me. “They were German, Polish, all different nationalities . .  but we were all on the same economic level. No one was a high roller.”

Dimitri arrived in L.A. in 1919, when the future site of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum was a gravel pit. Later he snuck into the brand-new Coliseum with other neighborhood kids to watch football. In 1930, he saw Knute Rockne bring Notre Dame to play USC.

“We tore up our pants climbing the fence,” he told me. He was 12 years old.

Dimitri turns 92 this week. {snip}

The other day he read one of my columns on L.A. history and called. He’d reached an age, he said, where he felt the need to unburden himself of certain memories.

{snip}

Our three-hour talk took us to the Central Avenue jazz clubs where he crossed the barrier then dividing white and black South L.A. and got free drinks by tagging along with friends in the LAPD vice squad. And to the 1930s gay bar where, as a high school student, he and his buddies bothered the customers by butting in on their dances.

{snip}

Many of us have a sanitized view of L.A.’s past–an orderly Eden of cul-de-sacs and optimistic Midwestern transplants. We have the novels of Chandler and Fante to disabuse us of those notions, but those are works of fiction.

Dimitri’s memories are of the real life among the immigrants and working poor of his day. Most of his South L.A. neighbors had come from somewhere else. His friends, he said, were mostly “real foreigners” like him.

His parents, Anton and Sirmo Dimitri, immigrated from Negovan, a corner of the Balkans with more than its share of ethnic conflict. Anton got on a ship to America and eventually sent for his wife.

Paul was born in 1918 in San Francisco and arrived in L.A. as an infant, to be baptized at the Greek Orthodox Church on San Julian Street downtown. A family story has it that when Paul was a baby, he crawled out of their apartment facing South Park (the original one, on 51st Street) and chased after a passing donkey.

Later his father got a job with the L.A. Railway, working as a motorman on the line that went from Hawthorne to Eagle Rock. They bought a two-bedroom home just a few blocks from the rail yard at 54th and Van Ness.

“He made $20 a week,” Dimitri told me, and it’s one of the few times in our talk he sounds bitter, because even then, that was too little money for a man trying to feed five kids.

But others were worse off, like the Chinese workers who lived in a ramshackle hotel next to the rail yard, cleaning the railcars at the end of the day.

To keep food on the table, the Dimitris raised a goat and rabbits in their backyard. His mother made beds at the downtown Rosslyn Hotel. And Paul worked from an early age in jobs that usually paid 50 cents an hour.

When the 1933 Long Beach earthquake hit, he was 14 and unloading bags at a market at Van Ness Avenue and 54th Street. “I saw that big brick building jump off the ground,” he remembers.

He also sold the L.A. Herald-Express. Anytime the German boxer Max Schmeling fought was a good day for South L.A. newspaper boys. “We’d sell the extras at around midnight,” he said. “Some people would pay up to a dollar for an extra. It was easy money.”

Later, he discovered shadier ways to make easy money. When he was in high school, he worked at a bookie’s in the morning before class, making as much as $50 a day. His father figured out what he was doing after he found him smoking an expensive cigar.

His best friend was the “very German” Walter Aufderheide, Dimitri said. Together they joined the Marines in the late 1930s. Both became officers and served in the Pacific during World War II.

Dimitri went on to own and manage several restaurants around L.A. He retired three decades ago and eventually settled in Laguna Niguel.

{snip}

Much has changed, I discovered. And some things haven’t changed much at all.

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