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Our Town

All right, this is getting personal. I thought I was done mixing it up with those who would suggest that Inglewood is the second coming of Florence and Normandie, and further suggest that its recent hard luck newswise isn‘t luck at all but merely the natural order of universes populated by blacks and Latinos and run largely by blacks (Compton, anyone?). Initially I was calm. Had heard all this before. Made all my historical and practical arguments against pigeonholing, as always. Returned to writing about other useful topics, like disco and baseball. But last week I got rude, resounding proof that nobody is listening to me about pigeonholing, and I saw red. I was taking too many punches and I wanted to hit back, though in truth I feel less like a fighter and more like a harried Lieutenant Columbo of the color wars, complete with the false exits in which I appear to sign off on the Donovan Jackson controversy and then, with a hand on the doorknob, mutter to a long-suffering audience, ”Oh ma’am, I‘m sorry, just one more thing.“ But after reading and -- more importantly -- seeing the Los Angeles Times’ latest lengthy Inglewood story, I‘m convinced that a third column is, at the very least, my civic duty.

The first thing anybody would notice about the cover story that ran July 24 in the Times’ second section was the photography: the one of a black child frolicking beneath a chainlink fence encircling a graffiti-scarred apartment building, with trash strewn about on concrete for good measure. Another that ran inside the section was entirely similar, except it showed a black child dangling by his knees from the frame of an iron gate, his ersatz jungle gym. There is a third photo, a nicely atmospheric shot of the owner of a local jazz coffee bar called Howling Monk -- my coffee bar -- a photo clearly meant to illustrate the contrast of Inglewood‘s fortunes, the curious effects of its long-standing socioeconomic yin and yang. But the shot is smaller and less prominently placed than the other two, and the reality is that the scenes of ghetto life thoroughly trump not only the Howling Monk, but the stated intent of the story: to draw a more subtle picture of Inglewood than has hitherto been drawn.

At that, by the way, the story fails. Instead, it gives Inglewood’s huge middle class a few cursory nods before eagerly returning to drug activity, faded storefronts, poverty rates and the like. But even if the story had been more shaded, we all know that pictures can render a million words beside the point, and nowhere is that more true, and more debilitating, than in pictures of black people and how they live. What kills me is that the Los Angeles Times, of all media, approaches Inglewood like a subject it‘s never visited or written about before, poking at it gingerly but clumsily, like an animal of unknown origin, with blunt-force cliches and broad descriptions. Never mind that the Times is our local paper; like the rest of its brethren, when it comes to race it too often fails to resist its own worst impulses. This is the default attitude of any media toward what it even halfway perceives as the inner city: When in doubt, find the drugs, the garbage, the chainlink fences, and run with them. (As a friend of mine recently pointed out, you could find a chainlink fence and a bit of graffiti in any city and use them against it.)

Nobody in Inglewood is a stranger to its political stagnation, or to troubled pockets like Dixon-Darby, which the Times photos show in all its unglory. But everybody also knows those things are not the whole of it; they’re not even the half of it. As I concluded last week about a somewhat different subject, the extreme is again being painted as the middle or the mean, supporting an entrenched anarchy of image that blacks in Inglewood, and everywhere else, find virtually impossible to reform -- especially after an incident like Donovan Jackson.

Of course, I knew it was coming: I predicted early that Inglewood‘s public face would take an indiscriminate beating -- much like the unfortunate teen himself -- in the wake of its very own cop-out-of-control scandal. I braced myself for the reconstituted media scrutiny that would reveal yet again how those darn black-populated places just can’t seem to get their act together, whether they‘re deep on the south side of Chicago or a few miles from L.A.’s glitterati beachfronts. I braced, and it came, but then also came the posttraumatic realization that yeah, it came, and it shouldn‘t have, the realization that media coverage of Inglewood shouldn’t always be inimical to its well-being, and I have a right to spout off about it ad nauseam. Kenneth Moore of the Howling Monk spouted off about the Times story, too, even though he was featured in it, and it might ultimately turn out to be good for his business. There‘s something more personal at stake for him in the only slightly bigger picture, literally and figuratively, as there is for me. ”I’ve been in Inglewood 27 years, raised my kids here -- I feel like, ‘Don’t mess with my city!‘“ he exclaims. Even the most pragmatic side of him gets incensed over what he considers an unconscionably unfair portrayal of our town.

”Look, I have a very serious investment here in Inglewood, like other business owners and other homeowners, and when I see anything negatively affecting that investment -- pictures of a kid crawling on his hands and knees through an alley -- it bothers me,“ he says. ”I wish it had been an article instead about a phenomenally successful new business in Inglewood. That would be a valid story, wouldn’t it?“

Moore helped make my own return to Inglewood, after a decade away, an easy transition. He opened up Howling Monk the same month I moved here, last December, at the southernmost end of Market Street, downtown Inglewood‘s main drag. Sure, Market leaves much to be desired, but its layout beats Larchmont all to hell, and Moore has a primo spot with a fountain in front and an old-fashioned post office across the street. One day I discovered Howling Monk’s eight varieties of coffee beans and never went back to Peet‘s; I discovered its live jazz shortly thereafter and figured I’d never have to go back to Hollywood or the Westside to catch good sets. Nor would I have to travel north of Pico to find a neighborhood spot to sit and do nothing at all except read or stare out the window, or nurse a cup of coffee for an hour or more.

Although he was persuaded by Inglewood‘s redevelopment honchos to locate on Market, Moore admits he wasn’t entirely ready. He made a leap of faith that Starbucks, for all its preparation and expertise, wouldn‘t have. While profits haven’t been exactly stellar so far, Moore hasn‘t regretted the decision. ”I wanted to open somewhere close, where I was comfortable,“ he says. ”I wanted to be unique, not homogeneous, to be a real alternative. To find a niche and dig deep into it.“ Moore loves jazz -- ”abnormally,“ he deadpans -- and coffee runs a very close second. He talks about coffee having notes and after-notes, like claret and cabernet. ”Did you know,“ he says, brightening, ”that the very first coffeehouse opened in Mecca? Its original purpose was to reflect the community it was in.“

That put me in mind of an experience I had at the Times many years ago, during my first writing gig for a short-lived section called City Times. I believed what I’d been told by Times brass, that I‘d been hired for my community connections and my ability to accurately reflect what was going on in Crenshaw and other underreported parts of town. One week I turned in a story about Operation HOPE’s banker bus tour through Inglewood and the inner city east and south of it, a somewhat routine piece that included some empirical observations -- well-tended houses, neat lawns, marks of economic decline along commercial strips -- but overall, the visuals stressed pride of ownership. Routine to me. The filed story made its way from my bureau to downtown, where an editor read it and immediately concluded it was ”missing“ something. She proceeded to write in images -- graffiti and chainlink fences -- that she had not seen and that I certainly didn‘t report. I was aghast; I saw red. The grafted images were removed only after I pitched a fit, and then somewhat reluctantly. Kenneth Moore might get some new customers into his place if, as several people have assured him, there’s really no such thing as bad publicity. That may be true in Hollywood, but never in Inglewood. Moore and I are banking on the day when we can read or hear or see something about our town and, instead of having to count how many times a single ominous image or idea is used in service of story, we can count all the different notes and after-notes that add up to the real thing. I‘ll drink to that.


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