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The big confrontation came a couple hours later, as President Clinton delivered his farewell address to the adoring crowd inside the Staples Center. The radical chic band Rage Against the Machine, which had put on a free concert, had finished raging, but their machines still hummed with electricity. The cops, upset that some protesters were climbing the fence that separated them from the Staples Center, pulled the plug on the stage, announced that the fun was over, and ordered people to leave in 15 minutes. Many left, but some didn’t, choosing instead to start fires, climb fences, and chuck bottles and softball-sized chunks of concrete at police officers.
Depending on whom you believe, it was after five to 10 minutes (according to protesters) or after more than 15 minutes (according to the cops) that the LAPD charged in on horseback, firing crowd-dispersing foam-rubber bullets. When I left the Staples Center after Clinton’s speech, the fires were still smoldering, and chunks of concrete and partially filled bottles of water littered the area just outside the protest zone. The cops had the area secured, and the exits through which conventioneers had to pass were horribly congested. "The protesters are throwing bottles at us," a cop told me, as I complained about the clogged exits on the way out.
The LAPD arrested 152 people Monday. I don’t know if Lowell Fletcher was among them. But I do know that we are no closer to living in a world in which he doesn’t have to work to pay rent.
Subj: Poverty, L.A. Style
If you have to live in a ghetto, make sure it’s on the West Coast, preferably in Los Angeles. Whatever you do, get out of Camden and Philadelphia, even if it means a week on a Greyhound.
Living in East Coast ghettos–the kind I’ve toured in Camden, seen in Philadelphia just a few blocks from downtown, and lived near in D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut –means living in an attached rowhouse or a cinder-block housing project. Chances are the rowhouse will be attached to a burnt-out, crumbling unit on at least one side. Chances are an apartment in a housing project will have the same problem. Living in South Central Los Angeles, however, means living in a detached, single family house–possibly even a Craftsman.
Living in an East Coast ghetto means living by abandoned cars, stripped of anything of value, such as wheels. Living in South Central L.A. means living next to an auto repair shop. Driving through Camden, you fear that your car may break down. Driving through South Central, you worry that people may want to fix it cheap.
Poverty has a different look out West, as I learned when I took two tours of the infamous South Central area during the Democratic convention. Last Sunday, I boarded a bus chartered by the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, a "smart" development group that hates the University of Southern California and the Staples Center. Our focus was on a northern area of South Central, a 60-square-mile part of sprawling L.A. (By contrast, the entire city of Camden is only nine square miles.) On Tuesday, I traveled under the auspices of the Shadow Convention, whose tour, titled "On the Frontlines: South Central and the War on Drugs," promised a look at two areas in South Central affected by the crack epidemic.
Political conventions provide advocacy groups a perfect opportunity to grab an audience and show them some sights. If you’re a large corporation in search of legislative and journalistic goodwill, that means renting a hall or restaurant, hiring a caterer and a band, and filling up gift bags to hand out when your drunken guests stumble home at the end of the night. If you’re a community advocacy group dependent on federal money to keep your program going, you charter a bus, fill up folders with press clippings, and take a group of media types through areas they would be too timid to visit on their own. If you’re pretty flush with cash, you pass out bottled water. You also supply the press with real-life victims.
During Saturday’s tour, Felipe Perez, who works in L.A.’s garment district, boarded our bus in front of his apartment building, which is a block from the Staples Center. He was our first victim, a man with a series of problems caused by the development of the Staples Center and the events that it houses. The Democratic convention is causing him much worry, he told us through an interpreter. He’s worried about the use of pepper spray and tear gas on the protesters, since his building has no air conditioning and residents must keep their windows open. He’s worried about parking. He’s worried that residents of the building may have to show papers to get inside the secure area where their apartment is. (Many are illegal and don’t have any identification.) He’s worried about parking, since street parking is temporarily eliminated and his building doesn’t have a garage.
Perez’s presentation is moving. His building is indeed stranded, a loud yell away from the California State PTA building and the Staples Center but not much else. Other nearby buildings having been bulldozed in the name of progress. Perhaps they should have taken his, or not taken the others. I don’t know the specifics. I do know that if the lack of air conditioning and parking bothers him, he needs to move. For better or worse, the Staples Center isn’t going away and, from the looks of his building, his landlord isn’t the home improvement type.
After Felipe stepped off the bus, we rolled south through the western portion of downtown. Gilda Haas, our tour guide, pointed out New Urbanist developments that create "walkable" areas combining businesses and residential areas. She made note of the high rents, which the locals can’t afford. The developments are designed to attract yuppies, she said, but it’s tough, since the neighborhood doesn’t have such amenities as a supermarket, good restaurants, and the urbane watering holes that attract that species. (It does have a strip club). The Federal Reserve building sits abandoned, a Camden-style sign of blight, which was a cause for worry until Haas pointed out the new Federal Reserve building not far away. You just don’t see that kind of rejuvenation back East.
Haas’ biggest beef is with USC, which, she said, has been taking advantage of the community for nearly 30 years. Some of her gripes appear legitimate: USC is in a redevelopment area, which makes it eligible for government money and gives public officials the power to condemn private businesses and give the land to other private businesses. Guess who gets the prime land? USC, which according to Haas lets some parcels sit empty after securing them. Some of her complaints have to do with incompetent, not insidious, government. There’s no pool in the area because the city can’t seem to maintain it. That’s government failure, too.
I was less moved by Haas’ other complaints. As we passed a beautifully maintained pink house, she pointed to it as part of the problem. A USC professor lives there, you see, and he’s committing the sin of buying up neighborhood property, fixing it up, and renting it to students. He owns much of one block and a Jaguar to boot, which elicited disapproval on the bus.
Other "problems" are simply vexing realities. The area has few banks or large supermarkets but plenty of corner stores and check cashing outlets. An El Salvadoran department store chain has a huge store there that extends credit, as does a furniture store. But the credit is dear——24 percent ——which Haas feels is unfair. There is a local, black-owned bank that’s trying to compete in the market. I asked her how it’s doing, but she didn’t know.