November 19, 2015

The Roadium Swap Meet: Birthplace of N.W.A.

  • By: David Weible
The Roadium Swap Meet sign

photo by: Sarah Mae, Flickr

The Roadium Swap Meet in Torrance, California.

Every neighborhood has a place that makes it special; a place that is as much about the people who made it as it is the place itself. In L.A.'s South Bay area, that place is the Roadium Swap Meet.

It may not look like much, but the Roadium has thousands of stories to tell, including one about the birth of West Coast hip hop.

Kevin Sanada, a field officer in the National Trust's L.A. office, grew up a few blocks from the Roadium. We spoke with him about some of the stories it has to tell, why it's an important place, and what it says about our shared American experience.

To hear the full interview with Kevin, click on the SoundCloud embed in the right column.

What is this place?

The Roadium was originally a drive-in theater, but after those became less viable, it just organically became this swap meet. It’s open every day of the week.

It’s on the edge of Torrance in [the L.A. area]. Torrance is largely an affluent city, but it’s close to Gardena, Lawndale, Englewood, and Compton, so it’s always been a place where folks from lower income neighborhoods would come to shop for all sorts of things.

Tell us a story about this place.

There are a ton of stories, but the one that comes to mind with the Roadium is the story of N.W.A. and how that all came together back in the ‘80s.

At the time, there was this Japanese-American guy named was Steve Yano (a former high school guidance counselor). He owned this little record stand in the midst of the Roadium. Folks in the community would go there for the latest stuff, but [the music] wasn’t commercial in any sense. There wasn’t a lot of distribution for the records that came out from these communities.

Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, was buying a lot of these records. Hearing all this stuff at the Roadium, he wanted to meet the guys who were putting the music together.

The story goes that Steve ended up connecting Eazy-E and Dr. Dre and everything else is kind of the history of N.W.A..

What makes this place special?

It was a place where the community was, where the audience was, but also a place for connecting. And all of this from the adaptive reuse of an old drive-in movie theater in the South Bay of all places.

It’s still going today, every day of the week. And now, with the demographic changes in the neighborhood, it’s very much a Latino market. It’s always been one of the places where the people shop.

Why isn't this place necessarily recognized as a place of historic value?

I think there are two tracks. One of them is that at the end of the day, it’s just a swap meet. People with money aren’t going to go there and shop because it’s just the stuff you get to get by.

But I also think in a larger sense, it has connections to the narrative of preservation as a whole. The story of N.W.A. is N.W.A. challenging the mainstream, or N.W.A.’s entrance into the larger world; how they dealt with the cops or whatnot. And I think in the way that history tends to be told, [we tell the stories of] communities of color, but it’s how they interacted with the mainstream culture.

So the stories of that interaction are always the ones that come up as diverse stories, but I think a lot of the times, there are these crazy amazing stories that are happening among different communities of color that don’t always have the chance to get to light because there isn’t that kind of awareness and understanding among the mainstream.

And I think that’s something that N.W.A. was able to do as a music movement. But still the stories behind all this—and why N.W.A. rapped about what they did—I think people still don’t quite completely understand because it’s just so far off the radar from what we consider the traditional narrative of history.

Why did you choose to speak about this place?

I feel like there are stories within this place that are never going to be heard. I think in speaking out about it, it’s, in a way, a symbol of kind of the resilience of that community.

The Roadium is not a fancy building. It’s just a parking lot. But really it’s the people who have these stories now that are the significance of the place.

Why is this an important place for other people to know about?

It shows that, especially in some of the under-served communities, there are places of significance and important stories connected to places that aren’t as tangible as some of the other more traditional preservation projects.

It’s about taking in the larger community impact of a place and being able to recognize a lot of those stories and celebrate them, even if they are about folks who continue to this day to struggle or may not have the means to elevate their story in the ways that other communities are able to.

How does this fit in to our larger American story?

It highlights the fact that there is a lot of interaction, especially in these urban communities where a lot of people are living together. And I think many times there is less attention paid to the interaction among communities that aren’t necessarily engaged in the mainstream.

The story of N.W.A. is emblematic of that. It’s this organic thing that came from the neighborhood. It didn’t come out of happiness either. It came out of the struggle and the hustle and all of those things.

Those are the types of stories that we also need to elevate—the ones that aren’t happening in the forefront, the ones that are happening behind the scenes, and ones that I feel a lot of the times people are kind of reluctant to acknowledge.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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