The Slow Death of a Chocolate City
Lacking a strong economic link to their community, many upwardly mobile African-Americans — as many as 75,000 by some estimates — deserted the community for the suburbs.
—Joel Kotkin and David Friedman, The Los Angeles Riots: Causes, Myths, and Solutions
ONE MORNING BACK IN THE ’80S, when I was teaching 10th-grade English here in Los Angeles, I talked with my class about the changing ethnic makeup of the United States and what it meant to be a minority. Moette, a pretty, dark-skinned 15-year-old, didn’t seem to get it.
“Why am I a minority?” she asked. “All I see is black people and Mexicans. How’s that being a minority?”
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I leaned forward and said with some confidence, “Los Angeles is not a black city, not like New Orleans or D.C. Most people are not black; most people in the United States are white. We’re about 11 or 12 percent of the population.”
“What?” said Moette. “L.A.’s black!”
“You live in black Los Angeles,” I patiently told her. “You just don’t see the rest of L.A.”
“Around here it’s black,” she persisted. “That’s what I know.”
I shrugged and continued to explain how Los Angeles had far more people of Mexican ancestry than black people, and that white people were the majority. Still, Moette refused to believe what I had to say about Los Angeles. For Moette and for many African-American kids growing up in near-absolute racial isolation, Los Angeles was still a Chocolate City, and she really didn’t know a thing or give a damn about the vanilla suburbs.
That was 1986, and maybe then she could believe that L.A. was majority black, but more than two decades later, this Chocolate City of Los Angeles, so named by George Clinton in his P-Funk days, has largely ceased to exist as we knew it then, except on the margins — Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills and parts of Crenshaw and Jefferson Park. The days of Los Angeles as an imagined Chocolate City are long gone; black people are steadily leaving the city and county of Los Angeles. Greener pastures beckon; sometimes it’s the beguiling song of the South and Atlanta in particular, sometimes it’s just down the freeway to Riverside or San Bernardino counties, anywhere outside of Los Angeles.
While it is reasonable to assume that this is natural — that when a people become decidedly more affluent and educated, they disperse; that, for various reasons, the ghetto, the barrio, the racial enclave becomes unsuitable — this dispersion feels different, like the emptying out of a region. It seems an inescapable fact that for many black Los Angelenos who have left or are in the process of getting out, running away, assimilating or disappearing into the greater vastness beyond Los Angeles, our presence is diluting into irrelevance.
L.A. County population changes from 2000 to 2006:
Total population change is +4.5 percent; African-American population change is –5.1 percent. The total county population is still under 10 million (about 9,950,000), while the African-American population was about 890,000 in 2005. (These numbers are survey estimates based on the American Community Survey and can’t be as detailed or precise as the 2000 Census.) Because of the faster growth of other groups, as well as its own decline, the share of the total county population made up of African-Americans declined from 9.8 percent to 8.9 percent in just five years.
—Dowell Myers, USC professor of urban planning and demography
IN 1994, MY MOTHER WAS ONE of those pioneers in the reverse migration who bailed to the sandlots and abundant cacti of Victorville. She left for very basic quality-of-life issues: rampant drug dealing, gang warfare, laughable policing and the common perception that black Los Angeles was going to hell. My former wife’s parents lived in L.A.’s Jefferson Park neighborhood in the late 1940s, and even then they saw the coming decline and headed first to the promise of San Bernardino, and then, having quickly given up on that, headed to the greater promise of Santa Barbara. They wanted better opportunity commensurate with their achievements; my father-in-law had multiple degrees and was a UCLA graduate. He and his wife, who also attended UCLA, wanted the best public schools for their children and the best neighborhoods, even if those neighborhoods would have few, if any, black folks.
My parents didn’t possess that kind of foresight; nor did they have the means to be so selective. We moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans in 1962, a few years before the Watts riots. I remember being frightened seeing jeeps driving down Exposition Boulevard with National Guard soldiers manning .50-caliber machine guns. I suspect that my parents thought they could isolate us, that we’d be cocooned safely inside our New Orleans culture, and in our neighborhood with many New Orleans expatriates that almost seemed possible. But in the end, that ploy failed miserably. What we all faced, those from New Orleans, or from Texas, or native black Angelenos, were disappearing jobs that paid a livable wage, policing that enraged far more than it protected, and a largely broken educational system. These problems overwhelmed whatever consolation a Los Angeles version of a po’ boy could provide.
Even so, I’m grateful for having grown up on Second Avenue in the Jefferson Park area. It was more of a small town than a city block, and life was a long unfolding tragedy or comedy, depending on how close you were to the epicenter of a neighborhood blowup. I remember the white-haired, rotund and sauced Mr. Bambino and his magical ribs — ribs he soaked in his homemade peach brandy when he tired of sipping the latest batch he had brewed in a wooden cask on his patio. Those ribs were sweet and beautiful with an intoxicating golden glaze. Mr. Bambino would tantalize us with a single rib, forcing us to return to that long line of feral kids, hoping that he’d throw us another bone. I remember Mrs. James, my best friend’s mother, with her Texas twang. She combed my unruly hair and soothed my fears about elementary school when my parents were too busy getting divorced to notice me, and I liked that she added a lot of oregano to the batter of her fried chicken. I remember Charles, our immediate neighbor and a no-nonsense man who fired a .38 into the air to commemorate the new year; he owned a Jaguar-repair garage and managed to retire in his 40s.
There were characters aplenty. Norman wanted to sell my mother a hot television at such a wonderfully cheap price that she couldn’t possibly resist. Of course, two days later, he stole the television back from her to sell to some other bargain hunter. Then there was the indestructible Leon, who seemingly drove only when he was high, very high. He had spectacular collisions with trees and walls and other cars, but miraculously never seemed to die. The most common theory of his amazing survival was that his drug-induced stupor allowed him to be so relaxed that he could bounce about the car, uninjured.
Back then, even the low-rent gangsters of the neighborhood, fellows who would inflict misery and who would die miserably, would wave at my mother and offer to help take in the groceries. We lived in a neighborhood that had its own culture and history that seemed as permanent as a small town could be, until crack invaded and the neighborhood imploded in on itself. The situation was so overwhelmingly dismal that it fed the numerous rumors that the government deliberately poisoned black neighborhoods with crack cocaine.
In 1990, I told my students at Locke High that a riot was coming; it wasn’t just because of police brutality, or gang violence or poverty alone. Crack played a vital role in fueling the mayhem that exploded in 1992; there was so much free-floating rage — families disintegrating, folks losing their houses, domestic violence and the ubiquitous violence on the street that could be directly or indirectly attributed to the crack epidemic. If those tapes of Rodney and Latisha had never reached the public, some other brutality would have triggered social unrest. If you were there, you’d know it too; the pressure was unbearable.
DORIS, MY GIRLFRIEND IN HIGH SCHOOL, was friends with Sandra Kirkpatrick, the one white girl at Susan Miller Dorsey High School in 1974. Now, in 2007, Dorsey High is one of the few majority African-American schools remaining in the L.A. Unified School District. Sandra was intelligent, shy and, I suspect, only a bit shell-shocked about being the red-haired, white girl in an overwhelmingly African-American school. We did have one handsome, well-built, redheaded boy, and though he was about as pale as Sandra, he had a spectacular Afro and there was no doubt on which side of the great racial divide he stood — black with a gallon of cream in his coffee.
I didn’t think back then about what it would be like to be in Sandra’s position, for me to attend a school as white as Dorsey was nonwhite, where I’d be that dash of color in a sea of white faces. It didn’t occur to me to think that it was odd that in 1976, the year that I graduated from Dorsey High, the school was 85 percent black and about 12 percent Asian. That was the world I lived in and I never found it wanting; from gangbangers to Soul Train dancers, there was a vast cross section of blacks and Asians. People I wanted to kick it with, and people who I thought might stomp me to death; people who would go far in life, and those who wouldn’t make it to their 17th birthday.
MY EXPERIENCE OF GROWING UP in that world felt separate but equal. I figured that whites had to be doing the same thing, dodging stray bullets and stray ass kickings. Though factually that was bullshit, that’s how I thought about my life in relation to white people. I didn’t know any except for teachers and police officers, so largely I could fantasize whatever I liked about them.
No doubt we were truly isolated, culturally and physically. Linguistically, the isolation manifested itself in odd usages that made little sense outside of our neighborhoods — dog as a verb is just one example. “We dogged the shit out of that car.” “He’s a doggish niggah.” It’s such a useful construction that when I arrived at college, I wondered why no one used it — and why they didn’t understand me.
But probably what shocked me more than anything else was that for white people, cock meant penis, when for myself and everyone I knew — and I heard this often — cock (coc, if seen scrawled on a wall) meant vagina. Really, something so simple can cause serious embarrassment for an unassimilated young black man at UC Santa Barbara or any other majority-white college. Imagine wanting to put a little emphasis on the need to quench your horniness: “Damn, I got to get me some cock.” New white friends might be confused, alarmed or possibly pleasantly surprised.
Consider the few whites I knew, and the oddness of the sample: the dude who played Grasshopper on Kung Fu, Sandra Kirkpatrick from Dorsey, and Jonathan Gold, who would hang out in Dorsey’s library, where his mom was the chess coach and librarian. How could I form a reasonable opinion of what it would have been like to go to an overwhelmingly white school?
Plus, I had enough cynicism to not trust the idea that being around white people had to be intrinsically better than going to my school and being around black people. What did I care that I couldn’t take AP calculus, or AP English? From soul music and funk, I discovered jazz and Jimi and white music. English literature came after the African-American literature I stumbled across at Hall’s bookshop on Santa Barbara Avenue; try reading Ishmael Reed first, then Wordsworth; read Invisible Man, then Jane Eyre. I just wanted to read and think my own thoughts and follow my own interests, as did many of my pardners. I didn’t have whiteness envy — the condition of believing on faith that if white people were near, things had to be better. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the opinion that white people had it wired; all you needed to experience the great abundance they had at their disposal was to transfer to Beverly Hills High and all the doors to prosperity would open. That was done often enough; kids bound and destined for Dorsey had parents sophisticated in the art of residency manipulation and would get transferred to Beverly Hills High or Palisades High, where, ironically enough, many were tracked into classes filled with the same sorts of black and brown faces they would have seen at their home schools.
For those of us unsophisticated types remaining at our high schools, we had to deal with the suspicion that we were at a serious disadvantage compared to our kin and neighbors who got themselves into those desirable white schools. Sure, I had dumb teachers, particularly a biology instructor who was so challenged she thought cats were in the canine family, but I also had wonderful teachers who didn’t reflexively think black kids were damaged in some way. Whatever monolithic stereotype you might have of a black school, if you truly knew Dorsey in the ’70s, you would be disabused of those stereotypes. Black kids listened to Pink Floyd, obsessed over nerdish topics, hated faking being hard, were gay as all outdoors and closeted as they wanted to be.
Earl, one of my best friends, handsome and insane, played junior-varsity basketball at Dorsey when Dorsey was the second-highest-rated team in the country, but secretly fiended for something more intellectual. He lost interest in sports when he discovered competitive chess, accommodating girls, and a raw and passionate love of philosophy. At one point, he decided that he wouldn’t be complete unless he could steal the high school library’s entire set of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy so he could read it at his leisure. Earl also thought of himself as some kind of urban naturalist, his interests largely being spider webs and bugs of any sort, and he researched those wild flocks of parrots who lived in the trees in the Jefferson Park and Crenshaw neighborhoods, and how they had absorbed all the songs of the area’s songbirds. The wild parrots freaked out the other birds with their cacophony of sounds. Later in college, when I was introduced to the music of Eric Dolphy, I swear I could hear those wild parrots in his solos. And when I read someplace that Dolphy, who was raised not too far from us, was influenced by those wild parrots, it all made sense.
Maybe we black kids going up in Los Angeles weren’t equal in economic terms to those white kids living on the Westside, but we suspected we might be making something of lasting cultural value. Though we didn’t talk about it, I and my crew of closet geeks and nuts, athletes and chess players, sometimes we suspected that this world we lived in, violent and beautiful, vibrant and unrestrained, would reverberate beyond the geographical boundaries of South L.A. But I didn’t think this interest would be manifested by the fact that it’s now possible to watch Boyz N the Hood almost any day or night of the year.
We didn’t look at the rise of gangs in our neighborhood as a shared pathology; the great majority of us didn’t bang. Gangs were the rule of force, of ruthlessness; gangs were logical and inevitable. Why wouldn’t they exist? It was happening all over the city, throughout black L.A., a teenage arms race. While in our part of the world it was the Cribs, a mile south it was the Brims, to the east the Pirus — all of them with as intolerant a view of outsiders as the Cribs. So Lamar, the handsome young ladies’ man I knew who liked to dance at house parties in different neighborhoods, who had no intention of beating on anyone, was stomped because it could happen to them, to those gangbangers who killed him. He had to be stomped to make it obvious to everybody what was happening: Our blocks, which were like small, self-contained towns, were now territory to be defended as though the avenues and streets had natural resources or religious significance. Notions of self-defense, of pre-emptive strikes, the need to never be caught slipping became a way of life. It was inevitable, or so it seemed, that sooner or later we would all die some stupid, miserable death. We lived in a world without an expectation of safety, not from each other and certainly not from the police, who themselves acted more in the fashion of a gang than protectors of the community. Truly, at some point, all I wanted to do was survive. I wanted to survive to go to college — that was what I wanted, the promise of a new world, not necessarily a white one, though it was very, very white.
I DON’T GET BACK to the old neighborhood very often, but I still remember the jacaranda trees on Buckingham, Ruth’s Hamburgers on Jefferson, the five-and-ten-cent store on Jefferson, the absurd abundance of the Holiday Bowl with grits and sushi under one roof, the deep hangouts on my porch in the avenues, when gunshots were far off in the distance and my girlfriend’s skinny, brown legs looked beautiful as she stretched out on the green St. Augustine lawn. Of seeing black faces at school and not noticing their blackness, of hearing accents from all over the place, New Orleans to Mississippi, and marveling at the differences. What happened to black Los Angeles wasn’t just the guns and the drug epidemics, the bad schools and the insane policing; it just cost too much . . . financially, spiritually and socially. So much goes wrong in Los Angeles that the things that go right don’t balance the scales for very many of us. Latinos have replaced African-Americans in these neighborhoods and schools, and I wish them luck. I hope that Los Angeles is kinder to them than to the black folks I knew in the Los Angeles I loved.
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