Oral Histories

Interview of Vivian Bowers

Second-generation owner of Bowers and Sons Cleaners, located in the historic Central Avenue district in Los Angeles.
Series:
"Where Do We Go from Here?" Histories of Long-term Black Business Ownership, Community, and Family in Los Angeles County
Topic:
Business
African American History
Interviewer:
Hester, Yolanda
Interviewee:
Bowers, Vivian
Persons Present:
Vivian Bowers; her husband, William Cowan, who works at works at Bowers and Sons; and Yolanda Hester.
Place Conducted:
Bowers' home in Inglewood, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Yolanda Hester, UCLA Center for Oral History Research; M.A., African American studies, UCLA. Hester prepared for the interview in this series by looking at a number of books and articles that examined Black business ownership in a historical context, as well as articles that examined it from a social science perspective and looked at current socioeconomic debates and findings. For the Bowers/Cowan interview, she looked at articles in local publications on the Bowers and the history of their dry cleaning business, as well as articles on the Black business community in Los Angeles. She also researched the history of Central Avenue in publications such as The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance by R. J. Smith, which recounts Central Avenue’s heyday. Finally, as the dry cleaning business was affected by changes in environmental policies intended to make them more “eco-friendly,” she looked at UCLA School of Public Affairs Professor Paul Ong's "Environmental Justice/Injustice and SCAQMD’s Dry-Cleaners" and an article on compliance for dry cleaners put out by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Bowers was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
Length:
4.5 hrs.
Language:
English
Copyright:
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Audio:
Series Statement:
This series documents long-term and multigenerational business ownership in the black community through oral history interviews with owners of businesses located in Los Angeles County. The title is inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, which The title is inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, which focused on economic issues, including issues related to black-owned businesses. Businesses were chosen to participate in the series based on two criteria: that the business had been in operation for at least twenty-five years and that it was currently active at the time of the interview. An effort was also made to ensure that the businesses selected represented a variety of sizes and industries. They range from small, local businesses with only a couple of employees to enterprises that have a regional and even national reach, and the industries represented include construction, real estate, insurance, communications, dry cleaning, restaurants and catering, mortuaries, barbershops, and stove repair. Due to limited resources and time constraints, the interviews focused primarily on businesses in the Pasadena area and in South Los Angeles, with selected businesses in Hollywood, Gardena, and downtown Los Angeles as well. South Los Angeles remains one of the most important centers of Black economic activity in the region, and the Pasadena area has historically been a final stop for many Blacks who migrated to Southern California. It is also important to note that although the series focused mostly on these two areas, the reach and customer base of these businesses span well beyond their local communities. The first section of each oral history covers the individual’s family and migration history. The second and third sections then examine each business from two perspectives: (1) the day-to-day functioning of the business, i.e., staffing, profit and losses, marketing, etc., and (2) broader businesses strategies, including responses to policy changes, technological development, demographic shifts, and changes in the economy. For reasons that included scheduling, health, and capacity issues, some of the business owners who were invited to be interviewed declined. Those businesses included Eso Won Books, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Pete’s Foods Products, Winmax Construction Corporation, Beauchamp Distributing Company, and Gallery Plus. The UCLA Center for Oral History Research has also created a website that offers more context about black businesses in Los Angeles and includes numerous audio clips from this interview series. See https://www.library.ucla.edu/community-commerce-oral-histories-african-american-businesses-los-angeles
Birth and family background--Migration to Los Angeles--Early childhood in Compton and Florida--Living in the Westlake district (now Echo Park)--Family moves to Los Feliz--Parents’ invest in real estate--Father gets into the dry cleaning business--Moves to West Los Angeles--Home life--Changing religious beliefs in the family--Family trips to Florida--Racial incident in Florida--Family’s relationship to politics--Watts Riots--High school--Early career in retail--Becoming an entrepreneur—L.A. Riots--Decline of Central Avenue--Customer service.
Making the choice to become owner of Bowers and Sons Cleaners--Not prepared for the “back end” of the business--The role of women in the business--Learning on the job--The dry cleaning process--Impact of public policy and environmental issues on the dry cleaning business--Purchasing equipment--Staffing a labor-intensive job--Involvement in the community as a business strategy--The revitalization of historic Central Avenue--Development and affordable housing on Central Avenue--Investing in the community--Gentrification--Attending a business program at University of Southern California (USC)--Promoting the business and attracting new customers--Financial advice from her father--Expansion into real estate--The impact of the increase in minimum wage.