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A Sweeping Change

By Gene Williams
Special to The Lookout

January 27 -- Lloyd C. Allen walked up the stairs of his old brick building on Fourth and Pico, drew open the curtains, and looked west to the Civic Center and beyond to where the city meets the ocean, a familiar sight to him, but one that had changed much in his time.

"I've been on this corner for 52 years," he said. "This land was bought by blacks in 1925, and built by blacks in 1926, and I've tried to keep it black.”

But after 56 years in business Allen has decided to call it quits.

Wednesday marked the end of an era when Allen Janitorial Supply -- probably the oldest and best known black-owned business in Santa Monica -- closed its doors in what was once a thriving black business district.

After deciding it was time for a well deserved retirement, the eighty-three-year-old businessman sold his commercial property to a long-time acquaintance and his business to an entrepreneur who will reopen it under the same name on Stewart Street and Colorado Avenue.

“He’s worked a very long time, made a contribution to the city and while it’s sad to see him go, he deserves the recognition and some time off,” said Mayor Pam O’Connor.

“It’s an icon business,” said Bob Gabriel, a former council member whose insurance company has been a client of Allen's for more than 15 years.

There are few still around who remember Santa Monica in the forties and fifties when Allen was a young man and the area where he had his store was a black business district with doctor's offices, restaurants and barbershops.

"It was really a ghetto in those days," said Allen's friend of 60 years, Bert Staggers. "Nothing fancy, just tenements and juke-joints.

"Mr. Johnson on Main and Pico had a bar-be-que pit that catered primarily to whites," Staggers remembered. "He didn't discriminate. It's just that whites were the only ones that had the money."

Allen came to Santa Monica in 1939, when the only way an 18-old black man from Louisiana with a limited education could get work was to "carry a bucket and a squeegee," Allen recalled.

He washed cars, did a brief stint in a shipyard during the war and worked as a parking lot attendant. Then in 1949 he started a business that would make him known throughout Santa Monica -- Allen Maintenance.

The company soon grew to 52 employees servicing 150 buildings, with major accounts the included Henshey's Department Store.

"People say Lloyd was the first millionaire black man in our community," said Nat Trives, the city’s first black mayor. "I've known Lloyd for more than fifty years. You can't say enough about him."

But Allen would rather be known for his lifetime of community service. He was appointed to regional and county boards, was the president of at least two Rotary clubs, served as Santa Monica Parks Commissioner and founded a Boy Scout troop, among his many accomplishments.

Trives remembers how, at a Boy Scout meeting or a church youth council, "he always complimented you on the way you dressed and how you spoke," always giving young people "that kind of encouragement."

Twenty years later, when Allen was approached by a group of prominent white business leaders to run for City Council, he graciously declined by saying he knew someone who was more qualified. He tapped Trives for the job.

"Lloyd was part of the establishment. I was not," said Trives, who was elected to the council in 1971.

Trives will tell you, "Santa Monica has a long history of black businesses." Allen had outlasted most if not all of them.

By Wednesday morning most of Allen's merchandise and equipment had been sold, and his many awards, plaques and certificates removed from his office walls and packed in moving boxes. And then he closed his shop for the last time.

"I've been some places and saw some things, and I'm very grateful and very humble," he said. "In connection with running a business I have tried to serve the community.

“I don't want people to think I just took and didn't give back."

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