By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Covert resentment does not play out only in politics. I have a neighbor who startled me one morning by suddenly announcing over coffee that she was "sick of the Mexicans," who had exhausted her sympathy for everything from leaf-blower rights to bilingual education, who in the grand scheme of things, when one examined how poorly black folks were still faring, had no right to complain at all. I have another black friend who applied for a position with a black-run outfit but was pessimistic about getting the job because the employers, who dealt chiefly with families in Central L.A., preferred someone bilingual. My friend was not angry, not yet, but wistful and despondent because she had been looking for work for years, had been on county aid, and had now finally found a job for which she thought she was qualified — almost. Once a student of marked optimism, she had been left behind by a world that had changed during her long absence from the work force. "I hope I get it," was the last thing she told me, but her voice already sounded far away, like a drifter who must move on not because he wants to, but in order to keep moving at all.
South L.A.’s black population is still considerable, although the dwindling evidence of it can’t help but feel disquieting. With the exception of Crenshaw Boulevard, thoroughfares like Central, Western, Avalon and Main are most notable for the proliferation of Spanish-language Pentecostal churches and ubiquitous Virgens painted on edifices ranging from the side walls of liquor stores to car washes. The largest and oldest hardware store on Central Avenue, owned for generations by a Jewish family that refused to leave after two large-scale riots, has been sold and today labels all its cardboard boxes of nails and such in Spanish. The annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival celebrates L.A.’s seminal black culture on the street that spawned it, yet there is no getting around the irony that the area is now 75 percent Latino. As successful as it has been, the festival feels for all the world like a movie set.
"Blacks grumble that Mexicans are taking over — well, in absolute terms, they are," says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "Black people, in many ways, are in retreat. The political empowerment Latinos are going through now is similar to the black euphoria of the ’60s."
While documenting the growing Latino presence in South L.A., social photographer Camilo Jose Vergara came upon a Black Power mural at Avalon Boulevard and 36th Street and was struck by how the sun-faded images of Afros and raised fists called to mind the ruined frescoes of Pompeii. The South Los Angeles landscape is full of such shadows, suggestions that a once-powerful civilization has been forced by some natural disaster to leave and seek higher ground. In ’93, well before the Watts Times made its move, the 65-year-old Los Angeles Sentinel relocated from its original quarters on Central to the demographically friendlier environs of Crenshaw Boulevard. But even Crenshaw, as I gently suggested to Najee Ali, is not impervious. The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the center of black economic activity in urban L.A., especially as it becomes increasingly identified with Magic Johnson’s myriad business ventures, is gaining more and more Latino foot traffic. The mall, as both a place of destination and eventual point of exclusion for black folk, is taking on new meaning. I have long complained that it doesn’t have what I want, that its hard-won overhaul in 1988 left the community with merely a shell of newness and progress. Last weekend the mall observed its 10th anniversary, but we’re still looking for what we want, what we lost; in those recesses another population is quietly finding what it needs.
Porches used to be the most important public space black people in L.A. had. A great many of them were Southern transplants, and a porch-sitting culture was something that transposed easily from the South to a city known for its geographic expansiveness, where even the poorest citizen could claim a front lawn, a driveway, a dividing hedge, a backyard. People conducted whole conversations across streets without ever stepping off their porches. A well-used porch was the greatest sign of civility; on my block, the few families that kept their porches empty and the front lights off were dismissed, then mythologized, as kooks or recluses. I visited relatives nearly every Sunday and spent the better part of those afternoons on the porch, sequestered with my cousins; my uncle ran a barbershop on Jefferson Boulevard in the Crenshaw District that functioned as a porch for virtually everyone — businessmen, politicos, family, chess players, retirees and, oh yes, people who actually wanted to get their hair cut. The dispersal of the Southern contingent, and the rising meanness of the streets, hastened the demise of porches as extensions of home. Like windows and screen doors, they ceased to be points of connection to the immediate world and became merely points of vulnerability to shut and reinforce with iron bars. It’s a swift and radical change that would have seemed ludicrous and deeply paranoid as recently as 20 years ago. Joe Hicks, director of the city’s Human Relations Commission, explains it thus: "Before the ’80s, L.A. was essentially a white city with a historical black population of Southern immigrants. Latinos were entrenched in East L.A. Then there was a war in Central America, the Mexican economy got bad, crack came on the scene, black gangsterism shot up, black people started migrating out — all of this just sort of landed overnight."