Poverty, L.A. Style

Daily Convention Coverage


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, New Jersey, 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 away 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 Crafstman home.

Living in an East Coast ghetto means living by abandoned cars, stripped of anything of value, such as wheels. Living in South Central LA means living next to an auto repair shop. Drive through Camden, you fear that your car may break down. Drive through South Central, and 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 during the Democratic National Convention. Last Saturday, 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 part of South Central, a 60-square mile part of the 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 of 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.

Felipe Perez, who works in L.A.'s garment district, boards our bus in front of his apartment building, which is a block from the Staples Center. He is 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, sandwiched between the California State P.T.A. building and the Staples Center. 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 A/C and parking bother 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 steps off the bus, we roll south through the Western portion of downtown. Gilda Haas, our tour guide, points out New Urbanist developments that create "walkable" areas combining businesses and residential areas. She makes note of the high rents, which the locals can't afford. The developments are designed to attract yuppies, she says, but it's tough, since the neighborhood doesn't have amenities like a supermarket, good restaurants, and 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 is a cause for worry until Haas points 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 says, 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, if Haas is on the level, which lets some parcels sit empty after they secure it. 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'm less moved by her other complaints. As we pass a beautifully maintained pink house, Haas points to it as a source 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 elicits 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, which extends credit, as does another 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 ask her how it's doing but she doesn't know.

As we headed deeper into South Central—something unexpected became clear. On the face of things, the area appears to be less of a ghetto than a suburb with small yards. It's certainly short on parks and green space, but so is the entire city.

Don't get me wrong: Most people probably wouldn't choose to live there. The houses are small by today's standards, although I saw some nice houses reportedly selling for $120,000. But unless you are particularly scared of black and brown people, you wouldn't fear driving through it. You may even get out of your car to buy something: Unlike Camden, there are plenty of wholly legitimate businesses in South Central.

The folks guiding us journalists seemed a bit sensitive about all the commercial activity. This seems like a pretty vibrant working-class community, I said as we rolled past auto-repair shops, brand new gas stations, fast-food joints, furniture stores, and places to cash paychecks. Mary Lee, one of the Shadow Convention's tour guides, got a bit defensive. This may not be as gritty as some East Coast slums, she granted. But she insisted that compared to other areas of L.A., the area sucked. In particular, she's bothered by the "mixed-use" nature of the area–industrial businesses and auto-shops are close to houses–and she assured me that many of the businesses were marginal and likely to fail. "Poverty is a relative thing," she told me, expressing a bit of ghetto envy. "People still need to feed a family here on $5,000 a year," she said, later adding, "Transit here is abominable."

Lee estimates that after the riots here during the 1960s, 70,000 to 100,000 jobs disappeared. Disco came in the 1970s; crack in the 1980s. By the time South Central erupted after the 1992 trial of the cops who beat Rodney King, the area was most distinguished by its number of liquor stores. 728 stores sold booze to the area's 500,000 residents, compared to 280 in Rhode Island, a state with three times as many people at the time.

To give credit where it seems due, one reason South Central doesn't live up to its wasteland reputation these days is because of the work that groups like this are doing. Our first stop on the drug war tour was the Community Coalition, a group that started organizing homeowners to challenge the renewal of liquor store licenses after the 1992 riots. Now I'm all for liquor stores–I like nothing better than to pick up a tall boy on the way home from work. I'm one of those people who drink out of a brown paper bag on the sidewalk. And I respect private property. But these folks claim not to spray random bullets at businesses. They target what they call "comfort zones," based around "nuisance businesses." Explains a representative of the Community Coalition, "It's a place where you can pick up a woman, buy a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor, and go to the Trojan hotel for $5 an hour and they'll give you a condom." One problem store even supplied cups with ice in them so customers could drink outside.

Solomon Rivera, the Community Coalition's associate director, explains that the group operates on a version of James Q. Wilson's "broken-window" theory, which holds that minor breakdowns in civility and appearance (e.g., tolerating loitering and not fixing broken windows) fuel bigger problems. They work with community leaders to identify businesses causing problems for neighborhoods. It's a long process and they first try to work with business owners before seeking a revocation of the business license. So far, they've managed to get 40 businesses to convert from selling liquor to other products.

There are still many tough areas in South Central where the impact of drugs and alcohol abuse is evident. Our last stop is a strip of Figueroa Street where motels that once housed traveling blacks denied service by white hotels (including jazz musicians who entertained in them) now house prostitutes and drug addicts. We stop at Palms Motel, which owner Kevin Pickett converted from a seedy motel to a non-profit home for HIV-positive men from the neighborhood, some of whom have a roof over their heads for the first time in years. We meet a 38-year old former drug addict who's been blinded by AIDS. While he's lost his sight, he's found God, and he's feeling better than ever. "When I leave here I know where I'm going," he tells us leaning on his cane and clutching a bottle of laundry detergent in his other hand. "I like being here, I was able to start my life over again."

The impact of crack and heroine can't be escaped in this stretch of road. Groups of addicts band together to rent rooms in the hotels across the street. They stay inside shooting and smoking drugs until they are broke and out on the streets again. Shootings aren't uncommon; people do their business on the street. "Kids are forced to walk in front of people who are intoxicated and defecating on the street," says one man who grew up in the area.

Our tour is a pro-legalization drug tour, so I decide to ask these folks, the people who use and live among drugs, what they think about legalization. "I don't think they ought to legalize them," says John Taylor, a 74-year old drug counselor. Taylor shows me the deep scars on his forearms earned from the 23 years he spent shooting heroin. "Heroin make you steal from your parents, your best friends," he says. "It's a monster."

I broached the question inside, where another woman was talking to the entire group. She dodged the question, saying something about how her focus was on "harm reduction." A drug counselor and former addict said legalization would make neighborhood problems worse. I noticed Rush Limbaugh's See, I Told You So, on a bookshelf in the common room.

Such an unenlightened view upsets a middle-aged man in our group. He tried to educate the drug counselor, a former cocaine addict, on the benefits of drug legalization. He seemed surprised when his logical arguments made little progress.

As we boarded the bus and headed back to the Staples Center, I realized that you never know what you are going to learn when you leave the office and head into the field. This guy learned that former drug addicts and individuals who live in areas where drugs are sold often don't think they should be legalized. I learned that South Central L.A. is a large, vibrant, and diverse area. I say move there. The real estate is inexpensive and it's an area on the rise.