Where Is South L.A. — and What Does It Mean?

48th Street
48th Street

Too often South L.A. and black L.A. are seen as the same thing. They are not. 

The term "South L.A." was coined in the wake of the 1992 riots; before then, much of the city south of the 10 freeway was referred to as South-Central Los Angeles. In 2003, the City Council officially renamed the 16-square-mile mega-community South Los Angeles. South-Central had become shorthand for "ghetto."

It was "an area too vast for the one-dimensional, hyper-violent-ghetto stereotype," says Cal State Northridge geography professor Ronald A. Davidson. "A cynical view would be that they exploited the city’s amorphousness and lack of definition to provide cover. And it seems to have worked. A 'problem area' in L.A. has vanished."

Yet more than 10 years later, some African-American residents are bringing back "South-Central" as a term of community pride. There are even South-Central T-shirts that are essentially saying, We were here first.

"I would say part of it is nostalgia," says Jasmyne Cannick, a political consultant and journalist who lives in South L.A.  She says she's seen the T-shirts at neighborhood Walgreens stores. "Some older residents still call it that."

As some neighborhoods south of the 10 gentrify — and as communities embrace the areas' historic names, such as West Adams, Jefferson Park and University Park — some longtime residents want to honor the neighborhoods' African-American roots. But over the past several decades, Latinos have become the majority in South L.A.

All this is to say that South L.A. — home to 520,000 to 750,000 Angelenos, depending on how you define it — is an area that's misunderstood, starting with its geographic borders. And it's often treated as a footnote to L.A.'s geographic Manhattan, the area bounded by the 10, the Santa Monica Mountains, downtown and the beach.

A recent Los Angeles Times story on a high-rise planned for La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards called the area South L.A. Though the neighborhood is indeed south of the 10, the characterization perplexed some readers who wouldn't associate an area so far west with South L.A.

The site of the proposed development is about a block from the Westside city of Culver City. By the Times' own definition, the high-rise would be in the more specific community of West Adams. The area straddles both South L.A. and the Westside. And La Cienega is a core Westside street within city boundaries.

Many old-school African-American residents consider areas south of the 10 but west of La Brea Avenue their own Westside. Even some black businesses east of La Brea have "Westside" in their names. That's a throwback to the idea that anything west of Central Avenue or Main Street is Westside. Decades-old Latino gangs west of those streets use W.S. in their graffiti, even if they exist south of the 10.

Political consultant Cannick says that areas west of La Brea weren't considered South-Central before 2003. So why would they be considered South L.A.?

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There are even crime-plagued blocks north of the 10 that have been described as "South Los Angeles." 

Traditionally, the 10 was not the northern border of black Los Angeles (which is too often considered synonymous with "South L.A."). African-American communities existed farther north long before the freeway was built in the early and mid-1960s. Those north-of-the-10 communities include neighborhoods along La Cienega Boulevard just a mile south of Beverly Hills, those along Pico abutting Miracle Mile and those extending into Mid-City and beyond, such as St. Elmo Village, Arlington Heights and Country Club Park. 

South L.A. is almost as nebulous a term as Mid-Wilshire, which has become almost geographically meaningless. Media outlets have described Miracle Mile, Park Mile, Koreatown and Westlake as Mid-Wilshire.

While many residents prefer for their specific communities to be recognized and there are 30 or so of them in the area generally regarded as "South L.A." — that also can be a precursor to the kind of gentrification that forces out longtime residents. The gentrification of Venice was preceded by the division and remodeling conquest of its many neighborhoods — Oxford Triangle, Milwood, the Strand, Oakwood.

Some fear the same thing is happening south of the 10.

"All of a sudden it's 'Chesterfield Square,'" says Cannick, citing one example. "I think a lot of that has to do with the people who are moving to the neighborhood. I think it's more for the benefit for the people who are gentrifying the neighborhoods."


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