I hold up my camera to snap a photo and that simple act feels momentous. As the image prints from my Polaroid Snap Touch instant digital camera, I wonder if a ghost or hidden artifact will be revealed in its corners. Something that will live on long after we’ve left this place.
My time on historic Route 66 was spent mostly behind the camera lens as I attempted to capture the spirit of places along the route that are no longer in service, many of which hold few hints of their former significance. This wasn’t the original plan—my goal was to visit the Green Book sites currently standing in Los Angeles and have conversations with the folks who know their histories. As it turns out, many of these spaces have been abandoned, demolished, or repurposed in recent years.
The Negro Motorist Green Book, known simply as “The Green Book,” was a guide written by former New York mailman Victor Hugo Green in an attempt to assist his fellow African American travelers as they made their way across the country during the era of Jim Crow laws. Several editions of the book were published from 1936 to 1966, and each highlighted businesses and private homes throughout the US that were known to welcome people of color. This is information that was particularly precious in a time of segregation, arbitrary arrests, and “Sundown towns,” or places where minorities were not welcome after sunset. Though many of the cities across Route 66 featured few or no locations that were known to be safe for people of color to stop for food, rest, and respite, a total of 224 businesses and private homes were included in the Los Angeles guide. The city also happens to be where Route 66 originally ended, before it was moved to Santa Monica in 1936 and then all the way to the Pacific Ocean at the Santa Monica Pier in 2009.
We drive around LA in search of more hotels, restaurants, and drug stores that, as far as we can tell from our research, are in service or at the very least still standing. We wind through the neighborhoods looking for signs—of which we find few—or people who might be familiar with the stories of these places—of which we find none. A single plaque on the Dunbar Hotel, now a senior residential building, declares it to be “an edifice dedicated to the memory and dignity of Black Americans.” We stop by Jack’s Chicken Basket, a former restaurant operated by the first African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and which once served the likes of Charlie “Bird” Parker. Today, all that’s left is a street sign, so high up you’ll likely miss it if you’re not looking for it, pinned to a light pole in front of the empty lot where the restaurant once stood. The sign states that Jack’s was “one of the popular after-hours joints” and “famous for chicken and fries.”
I’ve been lucky on much of this road trip to talk to so many people, all of them excited to share their memories of Route 66. But these historic sites have no one to speak for them, and the information that does exist is hard to find and often inaccurate. I feel the weight of their untold stories as I snap photos and print them, each a tangible memory declaring that these places matter too.
At Clifton’s Republic (formerly Clifton’s Brookdale), we meet Khalil Nelson, who guides us on Clifton’s “Living History Tour.” He regales us with tales of Clifford Clinton, the founder of this bar and restaurant which is one of the only sites we’ve visited that still functions in much the same way as it once did. The building sits beside the original end of Route 66 on Broadway and 7th, and its cafeteria—the raison d'être for the original Clifton’s—will be reopening later this year. This tour is one of the few times someone has brought up the Green Book without us mentioning it, as Clifton’s was listed in every edition from its original publication up until its last.
“The spirit needs nourishment, too,” our guide tells us, echoing the former owner’s words. After a childhood spent traveling with his Salvation Army missionary parents to countries where he helped, at 10 years old, to retrieve abandoned children and bring them to local orphanages, Clinton believed that no person should go hungry. His restaurant was known as “The Cafeteria of the Golden Rule,” which stated that anyone who visited would be served, regardless of what they looked like, who they were, or whether they could afford to pay.
Another of Clinton’s mottos, printed on a ballroom wall, echoes in my head as I flip through my Polaroid photos and consider how my research compares to what I’ve experienced. The most common repurposing of Green Book sites we encountered was as low-income housing for people in need. While some of the administrators seemed unfamiliar with the former life of those buildings, it’s comforting to know that they continue providing for underserved communities. Laying out the photos, I feel sure that, at least in those instances, the original owners would be happy to know what’s become of their businesses.
History repeats itself in as many ways as we need it to until we figure out a better way forward. As the slogan inside Clifton’s states, “To see the future, one must know the past.”