Capital Letters: Protest, Poverty and Politics

Our man in Washington travels to the national conventions.


This summer, Reason's Washington editor and Capital Letters columnist, Michael W. Lynch, headed out of D.C. to attend the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Over the course of the two events he filed daily dispatches about the official and, perhaps more important, unofficial goings-on for Reason Online. Here are selections from his analysis of the events' two most enduring themes: political protests and poverty. Lynch's complete coverage–including his trip to the infamous Playboy Mansion in L.A.–can be found here.

Subj: Committing Capitalism
Date: 7/30/00
From: mwlynch@reason.com

I headed into Center City Philadelphia early to catch the Unity 2000 demonstration, one of the many protests planned for the week of the Republican National Convention. Unity 2000 was designed as a noisy parade of various left-leaning groups. Not much news happens at political conventions anymore, and the buzz in and out of press circles is that the protests will be the big story. If this morning's effort is an indication, that story won't be above the fold on the front page; in fact, it may end up struggling for space in the food section. There were more cops than protesters–well, that's a bit of an exaggeration–but both were appallingly well-behaved.

Not that folks weren't prepared for violence. "I don't like cops, and I don't like government. They have too much power," Mike Shane, a ninth-grader from a Philadelphia suburb, told me in a thick Philly accent. Shane doesn't plan to commit violence. He's committing capitalism, selling gas masks for $5 each. He'll sell you a navy blue shirt with Protester over the left nipple for the same amount. He nets $2 on each item. "Pretty much sell stuff, that's all I can do," Shane answered when I asked him what he planned to do during the week. "Anybody that wants to buy a gas mask, they come to me."

While interviewing Audrey from the United States Marxist Leninist Organization (she feels we need a new kind of democracy in America), I spotted an attractive brunette with a temporary "Fuck Bush" tattoo on her deltoid. As I tried to chase the brunette down for a question or two, I ran into the source of the tattoo, Barry Adams, sitting on a concrete traffic barrier, wearing an American flag as a skirt, oversized purple sunglasses, and a red vinyl rain cap. He's a trans-partisan capitalist, hawking "Fuck Bush," "Fuck Gore," and four other tattoos. Politically, he likes either Ralph Nader or Alan Keyes but figures that after Clinton, who he says is "the Kennedy of our time," anyone will be a letdown.

Adams expects to sell a thousand stickers at $2 a pop over the next four days and a thousand more in Los Angeles. The money will help finance his next semester at Temple University, where he will study mass media and communications. Then he plans to head to Las Vegas to do stand-up comedy. I told him he's a mini-capitalist. "Why not?" he replied. "The government doesn't take 31 percent from me."

The Unity 2000 protesters were pushing sundry issues: Free Philadelphia's own Mumia Abu-Jamal, kill the death penalty, tax the rich, end police brutality, close the School of the Americas, dump the Star Wars missile defense program, etc. Such a smorgasbord is bound to generate some conflict, especially with libertarian counter-protesters and Bible babblers present.

Just as the march started to move, a group of 20 or so libertarians showed up in orange shirts with black Ls on the front and a Lao Tzu quote, "The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people will be," on the back. They carried signs proclaiming "More Good, Less Evil," "Big Brother Abuses Earth Mother," and "Free the Market." Like Adams, they're no fans of the Internal Revenue Service. They chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, the IRS has got to go."

They weren't marching for 10 minutes when they got into an altercation with a representative from Unity 2000, who wanted them to march on the sidewalk, not the street, since they were counter-protesting. "Our protest is only against your means," said Kendra Okonski, the libertarian leader. The guy retorted that capitalism kills children.

Safely past the Unity 2000 rep, the libertarians ran into Andru Ziwasimon, a doctor from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was holding a sign that said, "Privatize Our Lives, Publicize Our Resources." They stopped for a brief dialogue, although no one's mind was changed. When I interviewed him after the dialogue, Ziwasimon still wanted Canadian-style single-payer health care. Ziwasimon's friend, David Pennise, who's working on his Ph.D. in environment and health sciences at University of California at Berkeley, yelled, "Transaction costs! Externalities!" as the libertarians marched away. Nice touch, I thought. The discourse, at least, is a level up from the IMF/World Bank protests in D.C.

The altercation with the libertarians was mild compared to what Unity 2000 protesters faced just a few blocks away, where three people of faith stood with signs and megaphones. "Fornicators and Drunkards Will Join Tupac in Hell," read Stephen White's sign. A chubby, middle-aged male protester, perhaps recalling better times, told White, "I'm a fornicator." This set White off: "I know you are, because you are following Al Gore," he screamed through his megaphone. "Al Gore is a Nazi who kills babies."

The march terminated at a stage, where a woman sang the national anthem and encouraged the crowd to boo. Somebody burned an American flag. I checked back with the orange-shirted libertarians, who were being led around by a man in a pink, Disneyland-style pig costume chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, corporate welfare has got to go."

Subj: Poverty Tour of Camden
Date: 8/2/00
From: mwlynch@reason.com

I took a three-hour tour on Tuesday and ended up stranded on the Island of North Camden, New Jersey. It was a poverty tour, part of the Shadow Convention put together by the Eva Gabor of American politics, Arianna Huffington. You may have seen the media results: news stories chronicling the plight of the Philadelphia region's poorer neighborhoods, left to deteriorate when manufacturing jobs moved elsewhere.

Camden's been on my mind for the better part of this year. I've spent a good deal of time there working on a forthcoming welfare reform story for Reason–and chronicling the involuntary demolition of downscale businesses to beautify a strip of highway for the Republican Convention. If a city's demise can take on tragic dimensions, Camden's story is the Oedipus Trilogy.

So going into the tour, I had a working knowledge of the city and its problems, but I'm hard pressed to think of any solutions, partial solutions, or even effective painkillers (other than a shift from crack to heroin, the ultimate painkiller, for those still living in this miserable place). On the tour, I knew I'd get the liberal view. Perhaps they had the answers.

The trip was disturbingly like a poverty peep show. Fifteen journalists boarded an over-the-road tourist coach. The last time I was on such a coach I was hitching a ride with French tourists to get from Italy to France. Yet instead of peering at mansions on the Mediterranean coast, we were looking out at boarded-up buildings, sagging porches, and poor people languishing in the humidity. All from our air-conditioned comfort. We stopped to meet with community leaders who were working to solve the city's problems.

Camden is the archetypal post-industrial slum, nine square miles of almost unmitigated misery. Population peaked at 125,000 in the 1950s and has dwindled to 83,000 (and continues to drop). There are good people here: I've met many, both community activists and average citizens. But the desperation can't be imagined; it must be experienced. Building after building is boarded up, burnt-out, or collapsed. There is only one supermarket (and it's not centrally located). There are no movie theaters. There are hundreds of open-air drug markets.

City government is in complete collapse. The current mayor, an alleged drug dealer and Mafia front, is under federal indictment, the third one in recent times to find himself in such a situation. The city spends $120 million a year, but a mere $20 million is raised through local taxes.

We were blessed with two tour guides: Edward Schwartz, president of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values and a long-time anti-poverty activist, and Randy Primas, a former mayor of Camden. As we rolled out of Philly over the Ben Franklin Bridge, Schwartz set the scene. Basically, there were once good manufacturing jobs on which even those who didn't graduate from awful government schools could manage to support a family. Then those jobs left, explained Schwartz, who didn't really explain why. Those with skills left, too. Those with none stayed, and the place became an "industrial dustbowl." The government spent millions to help out, but it's still not enough–the communities need more. "There has been a lot of money spent," said Schwartz. But "the amount we received was a pittance compared to the amount we were losing, and that is true today." Schwartz's comments underscored a continuing omission when it comes to poverty: There is discussion of the jobs that left but never of new jobs created, or of why they weren't created. The hostility to business and industry–whether taking the form of oppressive regulation, rising taxes, or riots–is never mentioned.

Schwartz handed the microphone to Primas, the former mayor. Primas, a Democrat whose first act as mayor was to let the state build a prison on Camden's waterfront in exchange for a bailout, told us of a beautification project on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, one of the seediest roads in New Jersey. (In building a prison, one participant pointed out, he was planning for the future, since it could double as the mayoral mansion.) When Philly landed the Republican Convention, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman quickly found $50 million to tear down a series of businesses and plant grass. A few of the businesses owners didn't want to sell. The government gave them no choice and bulldozed anyway. All for a good cause, right?

"All along here were nothing but billboards and hotels that rented by the hour, and several gas stations," Primas told us as we rolled past a field of grass that used to be home to the businesses. He was proud of the government's good work, yet he was engaging in selective memory.

All the businesses he mentioned had indeed been there. But they weren't what Primas claimed. I know because I visited the owners earlier this year, before their businesses got flattened by the state's wrecking ball. (See "Eminent Domain and the GOP Convention," June.) Among the establishments: Camden's only decent (and legitimate) hotel, the Four Winds Motor Lodge, which had been bought and renovated by an immigrant named Jagdish Gupta; a brand new liquor store; a stereo speaker store; and a bunch of gas stations. All of them thrived off the road's heavy traffic. When I spoke with him, Gupta was especially critical of the plan to take his business away via eminent domain: "I'm losing everything," he said, explaining that the government was offering a below-market price for his property.

I mentioned Gupta's plight and asked Primas about the wisdom of wiping out taxpaying businesses in a city that has none to spare. "It was one of the hotels that rented by the hour," Primas declared to the bus, which simply wasn't true. "That one wasn't. I was there," I said, as Primas grimaced. A writer from The Economist said perhaps I shouldn't admit that, and a few ladies giggled. "That was a decision that was made," Primas pronounced. Spoken like a true politician–in the passive-authoritative voice.

Our next stop was a corner in East Camden where a public housing project is being torn down and replaced with lower-density units. A Catholic priest, Monsignor McDermott, who runs a nonprofit housing program, was our host. As the red arm of a backhoe tore down the brick building behind him, McDermott told us of his urban renewal plan to bring in middle-income residents.

Unlike New Urbanist planners, who want to squeeze us into ever-tighter quarters, McDermott says density is a problem, not a solution. There's no one but women, children, and drug dealers in the nearby housing project, he explained. "How do you propose to bring middle-income people to Camden?" I asked, knowing that when people get any money they tend to beat it out of places like Camden and never look back. I also know that the city's tax rates are twice as high as those of neighboring towns–there are so few property owners left in Camden, they get whammied. And the schools are 50 times worse than those in the suburbs, making the city hugely unattractive for anyone with kids.

I'm sure McDermott believes in miracles, and not only because he's a priest. Just listen to his plan to bring the middle class back to Camden: "Part of it is the type of houses we are going to build, and there will also be a light rail…" he told me as the backhoe tore the roof from the building. McDermott is confident because the houses will go for just $40,000, which is damn cheap for a newly refurbished house (each house, he said, costs roughly $100,000 to buy and fix up). But there's no rush to get into Camden, even though buyers can rely on a steady stream of government cash and incentives.

Back on the bus, I asked about the role high taxes play in keeping residents and businesses out of town. Primas told a story involving the bank for which he now works. The bank has identical buildings in Camden and a neighboring suburb. The taxes for the suburban branch, which does much more business, are $20,000 per year. The taxes in Camden are $40,000. The same is true for homeowners, though on a smaller scale. Primas drew no practical lessons from his example, however. High taxes, especially on business, seem to be, if not a force of justice, then a force of nature.

There is a recognition that money isn't the only answer, yet that's the only model the politicians know. "Certainly money isn't the issue," said Primas of the schools. "We're spending $11,000 a student"–a sum that would come close to paying tuition at some of Jersey's better private academies, if not its swankiest prep schools such as Lawrenceville or Peddie. Yet Camden's schools don't even have a superintendent–you literally can't pay anybody enough to stay in the position–and kids drop out in droves.

We continued to drive around the city in comfort, being told of myriad government programs and reminded that it is the government's discretionary spending, the very spending the Republicans meeting in Philly want to cut, that keeps these people alive. The final destination on our tour was North Camden, home of Riverfront Prison and many nonprofits working to revitalize the area. We passed the historic home of Camden's founder–now in a city park–which is appropriately burnt down. We saw boarded-up building after boarded-up building. "Despite the challenges you see," Primas told us, using challenge as a euphemism for abandoned houses and litter-strewn lots, "the section looks 50 times better."

We ended with a presentation at a refurbished home site. Presenter after presenter told us what they were doing to make the neighborhood more comfortable. It's been a decade, and they finally have financing for a housing market. Everything involves massive government subsidies, which have worked so well…where, exactly?

I wish these folks success, and I hope they have the answers. I just don't think they do.

Subj: The Protests
Date: 8/15/00
From: mwlynch@reason.com

Lowell Fletcher and his girlfriend set out for Los Angeles from Kansas 12 days ago, their thumbs extended on the side of the road. It took them a while to get picked up, but the hitching got good soon enough, and a series of trucks and cars got them to L.A. in time for the protests at the Democratic National Convention.

Despite living in the most prosperous era in the most prosperous country the world has ever known, Fletcher, 19, said he's neither happy nor prospering. "I absolutely don't feel free," he told me in L.A.'s Pershing Square, the staging area for the protesters. "I have to watch my back for the cops. I have to work to pay my rent. I only travel twice a year. I have people over me."

There's a reason Lowell has to watch his back. He's running with the now notorious Black Block, a loose confederation of young anarchists. He was with them in Seattle and D.C. "Seattle was empowering," he told me, in language borrowed from Lawrence, Kansas, the college town he calls home. "But it hurt, too." D.C. was just a disappointment, he added, because his tactics failed.

By now, all the reporters know to follow the Black Block: That's where the action is. If car windows get smashed, it'll be them. If the police line is charged, chances are it'll be by people dressed in black, their faces covered with signature black bandannas. Those are the tactics of which Lowell spoke. The cops know about the Black Block too. Later, when the march set out for the Staples Center, the LAPD flanked the Black Block; the cops went so far as to clear local onlookers from the sidewalks as the marchers passed.

Lowell's a well-spoken, intelligent guy. He became interested in radical politics through the punk scene, and he's envious that I, 11 years his senior, used to regularly catch such bands as Suicidal Tendencies, the Circle Jerks, Seven Seconds, and Social Distortion years ago. He wants to be a teacher but says he can't afford college out of pocket and is unwilling to take out loans for that purpose. He feels hemmed in, oppressed. He takes his intellectual inspiration from Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman. He recently saw former Dead Kennedy frontman and failed Green Party presidential candidate Jello Biafra read poetry.

"I'm an anti-capitalist," he told me, as the So-Cal sun baked us both. "I support autonomous communities, power at the local level, not the state." He said he wants to get his message out to the people in the streets and especially to the suits in the offices. But when I asked him what his message was, he replied, "I couldn't give that to you. So much needs to change."

I pushed him on the issue of "freedom," asking him what system other than capitalism provides more individuals with more freedom to find meaning, pursue their happiness, and live life on their own terms. He said he hasn't studied the other prime alternatives–Castro's Cuba, Tito's Yugoslavia, Mao's China, Soviet Russia, post-colonial Africa–and he got upset because he thought I was implying that he's a socialist. Yet he's sure that other things could work. At rock bottom, what he seems to want is not simply a guaranteed income but guaranteed success.

"There's a lot of things I want to do, but since I have to work for money they're just not options," he told me, as we walked toward a returning march dedicated to saving trees. "I'd like to be a musician, but I can't make enough money. I want to be a writer, but I can't make enough money. So I have to serve coffee to rich people."

I pointed out that people do earn livings both as musicians and as writers. But that's no good. "Even if you're a major musician, you have to do what someone else wants," he complained.

Lowell is just one data point–and I make no claim that he represents the General Will of the protesters. But having been of like mind in high school and part of college, and having spent two days among the protesters recently in D.C., a day with them in Philadelphia, and another with them in Los Angeles, I don't think he's an exception either.

Many protesters are kids raging not against the machine per se. Rather, they're upset that growing up entails a series of bitter disappointments. First, they find out that there's no Santa Claus. Then they figure out that one has to work to eat and to make rent, that having more free time generally means having less money, and that fame and success aren't a birthright, not even in America. You've got to earn everything, and that, they conclude, just sucks.

In the evening, I marched with the protesters to the Staples Center. On the way, I witnessed the cops mindlessly moving onlookers off the sidewalk and onto the street, even though they were simply shopping or working and had no active interest in the march. I witnessed protesters mindlessly taunting cops, who are working 12-hour shifts, plus overtime if they want it, every day in the unbearably hot sun. "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, LAPD go away!" chanted a woman at the front of the march as we passed an intersection secured by the cops. Just for effect, she also threw in "Fascists!"

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
Date: 8/18/00
From: mwlynch@reason.com

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.

As we headed deeper into South Central on the second tour, 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 homes that reportedly sell 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, 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 neighborhood 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. 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 to make the area more livable. 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" around "nuisance businesses." A representative of the Community Coalition explained, "It's a place where you can pick up a woman, buy a 40-ounce 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, explained that the group operates under a version of social theorist 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. The group works 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 license revocation. So far, they've managed to get 40 businesses to convert from liquor to other products.

There are still many tough areas in South Central where the impact of drug and alcohol abuse is evident. Our last stop was 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 stopped at the Palms Motel, which owner Kevin Pickett converted from a seedy motel to a nonprofit home for HIV-positive men from the neighborhood, some of whom have a roof over their heads for the first time in years. We met 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 told 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 heroin can't be escaped on 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," said one man who grew up in the area.

Our visit was part of a pro-legalization drug tour, so I decided 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," said John Taylor, a 74-year-old drug counselor. Taylor showed me the deep scars on his forearms earned from the 23 years he spent shooting heroin. "Heroin makes you steal from your parents, your best friends," he said. "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 said legalization would make neighborhood problems worse. I noticed Rush Limbaugh's See, I Told You So on a bookshelf in the common room.

These unenlightened views upset 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 world. 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.