Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
Los Angeles is wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high . . . Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities.
—W.E.B. Du Bois, 1913
[Black neighborhoods] are a kind of forgotten archipelago in the garish basin of the region.
—Robert Kirsch, 1965
As a kid growing up in the west end of what would come to be known as South-Central Los Angeles, my world was limned in black. The prevalence of black people in my neighborhood was not, as it tends to be today, a cause for alarm or a sign of inevitable social decay. Blackness simply encompassed everything — best friends, spring carnivals at the local Catholic school, the butcher at the meat counter, the summer playground director with watchful eyes and a whistle slung around her neck. I was raised in the very justified belief that blacks were as self-sustaining as anyone, that whatever could not be had within a three-mile radius of my house was some extravagance probably not worth too much thought anyway. My world was ordered and comfortable, though varied enough in its self-containment never to make me feel contained: I played jacks on the sidewalk, shot basketball in the backyard, went to the playground when I was bored, spent long afternoons in one of several neighborhood libraries.
I think the perspective of my neighborhood started changing with the proliferation of indoor malls in the mid-’70s, when I was in junior high school. Malls were located in almost exclusively suburban areas that were almost exclusively populated by whites, and my friends and I had to plan daylong bus trips to get to them. I liked going out to Del Amo or Fox Hills, but was vaguely resentful that I had to invest so much time and cover so much ground just to acquire a Hot Dog on a Stick. But everybody in the neighborhood talked rapturously about the malls, about the things that could be had there, and I swiftly came to understand that these things could not be had here, that they might never be had here, and what was once a world of plenty seemed more and more like a place of deprivation — still home and the locus of family, but a point that would stay fixed and musty as the world around it changed with abandon.
As it turns out, if black neighborhoods in L.A. had simply remained the same, it would have been a vast improvement over what actually did happen: a steady decline that left areas like my old neighborhood pockmarked with empty lots and façades where sturdy businesses used to be. The neighborhood feels not lived in, but lived out. When I drive through the commercial districts there and elsewhere in Central L.A. everything feels impermanent, poised for flight, like a diner sitting at a restaurant eating a meal but strategically positioned near the back door, ready to beat it at the first sign of trouble. Yet the greatest loss has not been stores or businesses, but people; the greatest catastrophe has been the exodus from a place where I once assumed everybody wanted to stay, a thinning of the bones in our body politic that do not seem to be significantly re-forming in all those places we went — Palmdale, Moreno Valley, Riverside. Weakened by this, by rapidly changing demographics and chronically discordant leadership, the city’s black neighborhoods are struggling to define, or redefine, an identity as the millennium draws to a close. Yet with our mass no longer critical — was it ever? — and not likely ever to be again, I wonder how, or if, black L.A. will survive.
The seven-square-mile Crenshaw District is the only predominantly black area of Los Angeles left, and the strongest argument against cultural annihilation. The storefront churches, screen-door restaurants and itinerant nightclubs may be weary, but they’re still standing, and the area is the base of operations for a hefty percentage of black businesses and institutions: the African American Cultural Center, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, Founders National Bank, the Museum in Black, the Black Employees’ Association, Fifth Street Dick’s Jazz Coffeehouse.
Yet for all its activity, Crenshaw has the feel of an island, a bunker. Lifetime resident and activist Valerie Shaw notes that the city’s entire black infrastructure now lies between the 10 freeway, Florence Avenue, Western Ave nue and La Cienega. “There is a tremendous sense of loss in the black community — a loss of political status, loss of neighborhoods, loss of history,” she says. “What people are dealing with is the breaking of a continuum.”
As old-line black neighborhoods such as Watts, Compton, Inglewood and, most recently, South and Central Los Angeles recede in the face of black flight and burgeoning Latino and other ethnic populations, maintaining a black presence becomes an ever greater logistical and spiritual challenge. Area schools with black administrations are finding themselves with increasingly nonblack student bodies, and pressing new issues such as bilingual education; on any given summer afternoon a Central L.A. park hosts far more soccer games than half-court basketball matches; a mostly black Hyde Park block club regularly walks the neighborhood with fliers in Spanish to bolster attendance at its monthly meetings. The black side of town is no longer a given; as a recent United Way study observed, in flat but ominous bureaucratese, “What we commonly knew of the black community over the last 20 to 30 years was geographically presented, based on a cluster of neighborhoods with a concentrated majority of the city’s black population . . . However, the notion of a geographically determined black community is no longer correct or viable.”
We may not have the numbers, but viability is another question. “Ain’t nothing gonna happen until we start being a community,” says Helen Colman, a Crenshaw resident who jump-started a block club on 71st Street after the 1992 riots and still acts as adviser. Colman talks proudly about what the ethnically mixed club instituted: tree planting, an annual block-club party, a neighborhood cleanup project called Operation Clean Sweep. Lying just south of the railroad tracks and just west of a ragged stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard, 71st Street was at that precarious point where a neighborhood can slide into intractable decay. Colman was determined it wouldn’t. “People have started fixing up their homes, improved and painted, and are feeling a lot better about things,” she says.
The black people on the block tend to have been here a long time. Current block club captain De De Anderson moved to 71st in 1969; her neighbor Henry Carter came the year before. Both have watched black families move out, either to suburbs or back south to their points of origin. Carter, a native of Louisiana, once watched three black families move out and five Latino families move in almost simultaneously. He concludes that “things have generally gone down” in the last 30 years, though not necessarily because of Latinos. “It isn’t getting any better, what with this gang thing and this dope selling,” he says, surveying the street from his wrap-around front porch. The houses are spare, but neat and quiet; the blare and bustle of Crenshaw seem much farther away than a block and a half. “But I been here too long. I’m going to tough it out.”
Neither does Colman plan on looking elsewhere to lay down roots already dug. Besides the block club, there’s her church, St. John of God, a Catholic church at Crenshaw and 60th Street that was once one of L.A.’s biggest black parishes, a meeting-up place for its Southern-bred contingent. The last black priest, Father Charles Burns, left in ’94; the Eucharist is now given first in Spanish. That’s okay by Colman. “I’m glad for the mass at all,” she says. “You learn to adjust, or you leave. That’s it. Stay and improve. We’re all in the hood together.”
A growing amorphousness is the greatest part of our poverty, but it is a part nobody discusses because, by definition, it is nothing you can see. In these politically blinkered times people are eager to put faith in the best appearances, and among black people that best-foot-forward thing is very nearly a historical directive. Black newspapers have always followed that directive, but in L.A., facing the demographic desiccation of their readership, such optimism seems hoary, not so much necessary as desperate and out of step.
This is the furious confluence of events they seem willing to ignore: Beginning in the late ’40s, with the official outlawing of restrictive housing covenants, blacks began steadily moving out of the Eastside and other areas of L.A. to which they had been consigned. In the ’60s, that moving out intensified as local industry dried up and the Watts Riots exploded a long-simmering urban discontent. In the ’70s, the industrial base continued its long, slow collapse, and the anti-public-spending movement, rooted in the passage of Proposition 13, took hold. By the ’80s, big government was out, urban neglect was in, the much-ballyhooed black middle class was in full retreat and a tremendous wave of new immigration was under way. Many of the black folk left in South L.A. lacked what sociologists call an “option to exit” — they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. Add to that the twin scourges of the crack-cocaine trade and the meteoric rise of deadly gangbanging, and black optimism began to sound like an oxymoron.
The black newspaper may also be in danger of becoming an oxymoron, though that is not apparent in a glance at the L.A. Watts Times. If the black community’s solvency could be measured by the paper’s recent fortunes, that solvency would seem reasonably assured. Last fall, the Times moved from cramped, creaky accommodations along the edge of Baldwin Hills to a Wilshire-corridor penthouse that boasts vaultlike quiet, soothing pastel décor and a grand view of the city through a bank of conference-room windows. The new quarters look and feel worlds away from the hardscrabble neighborhood for which the paper is named and from which it took its political impetus after the devastating riots of 1965. The move is ostensibly a good omen — a social climb, something the rival Sentinel, the city’s oldest black newspaper, might even feature on its society page. But it is also a put-on good face that barely masks deeper problems that have been driving the wild black population flux for the last 20 years or so.
The Times’ new digs are in an area that is predominantly Asian and Latino, but associate editor Melanie Polk says that hasn’t changed her goal of serving the black community. For Polk, that community is wherever it happens to be; for the purpose of the paper, Watts has long been less a physical place than a touchstone of local black struggle. “It’s not so much that we’re located in Watts anymore, but that we grew from the ashes of ‘Burn, baby, burn,’” explains Polk, whose parents purchased the Times in 1975. “The whole point was always to get information and resources to African Americans they otherwise couldn’t get.”
But many neighborhoods where the Times distributes are now at least as Latino as they are black. That has prompted a few tentative experiments in recent years — a column offering tips on Spanish pronunciation and the rudiments of Latino history, very occasional front-page stories on Latino immigration and its effect on politics and culture. These may not seem like big developments, but they are territorial and ideological concessions that black papers elsewhere in the country have not had to consider making. (The Sentinel, for its part, has not made them.) Many people see such concessions as compromising whatever coherent black identity is left in L.A., although no one is clear on how to preserve it. The Times regularly discusses changing its name and scrapping “Watts” altogether, though Polk is wary of such a move. “We have an established rep that we’re very proud of. We have national advertisers for whom the name change would be radical,” she says. “We don’t want an appearance that we’re turning our back on our roots or our mission.”
It is jarring to realize that blacks may be holding on by the breadth of a name. The irony is that despite shrinking numbers, black people live very vividly, albeit sordidly, in L.A.’s popular imagination — gangsta rap and Rodney King have come to define the city as much as the Beach Boys defined the Southern California Zeitgeist (whitegeist, really) of the ’60s. But where the Beach Boys extolled L.A. at its most blue-sky idyllic, King and the boyz reflect the dregs of its failed promise. Black neighborhoods in the ’90s are a painful symbol of everything that has gone wrong — despite the fact that Crenshaw is also home to the largest collection of affluent black neighborhoods in the West. This dichotomy testifies uneasily to the fact that while many blacks have prospered, many more have not, that the entrenchment of the more fortunate hasn’t mitigated the slide of the less so. And so the Crenshaw District stands divided, with the modernized Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza serving as a kind of Berlin Wall where the two populations occasionally intersect in a food court or shoe store, but later retreat to their respective north-south camps.
The fruits of the great black Southern and Midwest migration that peaked in the ’30s and ’40s, driven by a common desire to escape segregation for good and lay claim to California living, have been strange indeed. Black flight from increased crime and sharply decreased job opportunities has scattered the original settlers, to say nothing of their collective dream; blacks have diffused while the problems of decay have congealed into a crisis that too few people anywhere are regularly addressing. Hell, Crenshaw is still anxiously trying to involve the moneyed “hill” people — homeowners in Baldwin and Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights and Leimert Park — in their own economy.
But then it’s no secret that black Angelenos, like Angelenos at large, have generally been less concerned with activism than with securing the inalienable right to live in really nice places. In her recently anthologized piece on black L.A. history, “A City Called Heaven,” writer Susan Anderson points out that in the 1940s, Los Angeles was the nation’s leading center for legal challenges to restrictive housing covenants. Black leadership here has always kept to very middle-class concerns, and Anderson suggests that the venerable Tom Bradley and his ilk largely forsook the issues of poverty and inequitable wealth distribution for gains in political representation and increased social mobility. Leadership got what it wanted, at a cost. “Poverty as an issue for modern black leadership,” Anderson writes, “has been utterly without glamour.” It is particularly without glamour — indeed, it is almost an affront — to those whose greatest aspiration is to live north of Slauson Avenue, in the heavenly reaches of upper Ladera.
Self-made activist Najee Ali, whose guiding lights include Geronimo Pratt and Kwame Ture, says the first step toward black recovery is a very public exercise in self-esteem. He is trying to persuade people to officially recognize Crenshaw as a black economic, social and cultural hub that is worth sustaining for future generations. For the last year Ali has spearheaded a campaign to have Leimert Park Village (with its crown jewel, Degnan Boulevard) renamed African American Village. It is the latest in a fitful series of such campaigns that had an apotheosis with the renaming of Santa Barbara Avenue as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1982. Following the ’92 riots, a few Crenshaw activists began calling for a designation of the whole Crenshaw District as African Village, à la Chinatown and Little Tokyo, though the idea never gained popular momentum. Whether it will now, with the black population at its most fragmented and least civically active, seems doubtful; the King Boulevard campaign, even with Bradley in office, a favorable political climate and mainstream support, took many years to push through. (Conversely, it took astoundingly little time for the city of Redondo Beach to re-christen its stretch of Compton Avenue, which runs west from Crenshaw to the beach, Marine Avenue in 1990. The good citizens there apparently felt a complex coming on and administered some first aid before their humbler South Bay brethren — Inglewood, Hawthorne, Compton — even knew that a problem existed. Those of us who found ourselves driving south down Crenshaw, probably headed to the Del Amo mall, realized at some point past Artesia that Compton Avenue had neatly vanished, and felt a chill. What’s next?)
Ali, 34, is an ex-convict and gang member who knows something about turf battles, and he hopes to lend this one a tough edge. “We’re trying to establish territory, draw a line in the sand,” he says. But his African American Village campaign is really not as militant as it sounds; it is a manifestation of a larger wish to persuade Crenshaw’s middle class to stay, please. History is against it. L.A.’s black population, like most other immigrant populations throughout the city, has been kinetic: As it prospers, it moves. The difference with blacks is that moving has rotted out a social infrastructure and replaced it with nothing. Ali says it is therefore absolutely necessary to preserve the infrastructure that is left. He argues — as if there really is an argument — that people must see that “Crenshaw is our last frontier, our last stand. There’s not a place like this anywhere in L.A. It has to hold. We have to convince homeowners not to do black flight, by any means necessary. We can’t hold them legally, but we can shame them into staying.”
That sounds improbable, more so because Ali has assigned himself many other crusades. In fact, he assigns one almost weekly. His Project Islamic HOPE, which started out with the single mandate of feeding the homeless, functions today as a kind of clearinghouse for a growing number of black-related causes, from petitioning for justice for 9-year-old rape-murder victim Sherrice Iverson to shutting down a proposed Crenshaw porn shop to protesting black sexual stereotypes in films like How To Be a Player, which Ali believes are partially responsible for the high rate of black teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS. These are issues that sizable black organizations can’t or won’t address; I admire Ali’s willingness to stick his fingers into as many holes in the dike as possible, but I wonder if he is overreaching or spreading himself too thin to be taken seriously on any point on this crisis continuum.
Ali says no. He sees all his efforts as spokes on a single wheel — the preservation and reinforcement of the black community. This is the wheel on which everything turns, or doesn’t. “I’m hitting the panic button,” he says. “We’re part of the reason the demographics are shifting — by moving out and not staying, by not investing in each other and selling to each other. I would love to have a wife and kids, to kick back and watch TV, but I don’t have a choice but to be out there and agitate. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
He says that a big part of the problem is how black agendas have lately gone out of political fashion and been supplanted by happy-faced missives to build multicultural alliances. In a country pluralistic since its inception, multiculturalism is a given, but Ali argues that the multiculti push now is in fact a dangerously easy way of moving black concerns to the bottom of the list of social priorities. Over the last generation, “black” has lost currency to the point where black politicians and other leaders, mindful of cultivating broader constituent and financial bases, hesitate to characterize anything as exclusively black. The term casts a pall, dredging up accusations of reverse racism and cozy victimhood where it used to call the founding ideals of American democracy into question. “Our interests are being compromised by politicians who buy into this market concept of multiculturalism,” Ali says angrily. “It’s being rammed down our throats.” The greatest tragedy, he says, is that black folks have been willing to play the game. “There’s so much apathy. I stood up last year at the Malcolm X festival to say a few words, and when I said, ‘All power to the people,’ everybody looked at me like I was crazy. It distresses me.”
Distress is no place to linger; instead, lead from where you are. So believes John Bryant, another young steward of inner-city change. Bryant is the 32-year-old president, founder and feverish brain behind Operation HOPE, a post-riot nonprofit aimed at revitalizing neighborhoods in Crenshaw and well beyond. Although he is a friend and mentor of Ali, he dismisses the back-to-black-L.A. movement as diversionary and nostalgic — a memento at best, an impediment to real progress at worst. “Okay, so we have self-esteem problems!” he barks. “We act like we just heard about it on the 11 o’clock news!” Like Ali, Bryant believes in a black agenda, but unlike Ali, believes that agenda has no choice but to broaden if it is to stay relevant and keep its eyes on the prize that matters most now: economic empowerment. Operation HOPE in the last six years has launched a variety of community services — a banking and home lending center, a small-business assistance program. Last spring Bryant grand-opened an Operation HOPE banking center in Maywood, a small outpost of a city in southeast L.A. County that is virtually all Latino.
“I’m not black for a living,” Bryant says brusquely. “I don’t want to be a black community leader, I want to be an excellent leader.” That doesn’t mean he sells himself out. “Hell, I’m black, and if I wasn’t first and foremost about black people, I’d have to have my head examined. Operation HOPE was clearly directed at blacks. But we also very quickly made it clear that it was about demographics. In the last stage of his life Martin Luther King was focused on a campaign for poor people — didn’t matter what the paint job was. King realized that economic equity was the real force behind social equality. It was always less about race than class.”
Bryant sits in his glass-walled office in the downtown high-rise that houses the Bryant Group, the financial consulting firm that is his day job. He often shuttles between this world and close-but-so-far-away South-Central several times a day, and says it is that kind of fluidity, rather than hewing to ground already lost, that will save black people. Migration may be a cultural tragedy, but it is also a fact of life that is accorded too much moral weight. “The [black] community is not eroding, it’s dispersing — into Rialto, Carson, Malibu,” says Bryant. “Let the process drive itself. Get involved with the results. It’s not about Latino or black or anything. I’m so tired of that black b-boy mentality of ‘look at me, I’m important, give me attention.’ The more powerful thing is subtlety. We need to start finding ways to collaborate. I’d rather have 10 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing.”
Every other year, Bryant leads a group of corporate and banking heavies on a bus tour through Central Los Angeles to show them the wondrous economic opportunities that lie waiting to be exploited. Like a carnival barker, he cheerily — at points, too cheerily — hypes all that he sees. (“Look at these beautiful homes on your left, ladies and gentlemen! Nobody hanging out on the street corner, no guns in sight! Surprised?”) During the last spring tour, which set off from Crenshaw and wound up in Maywood, the differences between largely black communities and largely Latino ones became startlingly clear. Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills and much of South L.A. featured lovely, well-tended houses but neglected commercial strips; Huntington Park and Maywood had modest to run-down residential districts but boulevards, like Pacific Avenue, that were thriving with business and pedestrian traffic in the middle of a weekday afternoon. The bus tour started out from La Brea Avenue with much fanfare, but Pacific felt like its pièce de résistance, offering both the thrust of the future and prod of the past. As we rolled slowly down the boulevard with throngs of people on either side, my seat mate, a fellow black reporter and Crenshaw resident, turned to me and said wonderingly, enviously, as if it had just occurred to him: “This is the problem. We don’t shop where we live anymore.”
More to the point, we don’t live where we live anymore; even where we are present, it tends to be in the flesh only. We have grown to believe too much in the larger-than-life status conferred upon us by the varied engineers of pop culture — film producers too enamored of ghetto stories, record executives who revere hip-hop and its unlimited power of product placement — who hardly have our social survival in mind. It has become perfectly okay to invoke the virtues of black people without being anywhere near them. Recently it was reported that Assemblyman Kevin Murray does not live in the Crenshaw neighborhood that he represents, and where he grew up. Doctored addresses are hardly new to politics, but Murray touts the place so eloquently and speaks so forcefully on behalf of L.A.’s black community that his absence from that community is a specific kind of betrayal. Not that one must necessarily live in a place to work for its benefit, but the fact is that, these days, very few black folks who don’t live in the hood have its future at heart.
Which is not to say that there aren’t black phenomena that need to be relegated to the past; there are. One is the willful, often hostile inertia of black politicians and civil servants who ignore the needs of Latino constituents, at everyone’s peril. Constance Rice, former attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recalls angrily accusing Compton school district officials of the same dereliction of public duty that got white governing bodies slapped with civil rights lawsuits. “I told them, ‘If these Latinos were you, you’d be screaming for blood,’” says Rice, who, for the record, maintains a pro-black stance, and believes that many issues are culture-specific and not easily remedied by the platitudes of multiculturalism.
“No question, more and more blacks are becoming a victim population, becoming internally disconnected from each other,” says Genethia Hayes, director of the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “But we can’t talk about personal responsibility merely — there’s no good health care, day care, there’s insurance redlining. Don’t tell me all black people have to do is get out there and open a store.”
Just beneath the conversation of many African Americans is a frustration at never reaching, as a group, a level playing field, whose existence has lately become America’s fondest social myth. “Blacks have been sold down the river. They never got what we were promised,” says Teryl Watkins of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, an organization that has seen its core constituency rapidly shift from black to brown. “We are survivors, but at some point . . . we want to get past that struggle just to keep up a basic standard of living. We’re tired, dulled, still in the middle of a rip-off. Shoot, I want my 40 acres and a laptop.”
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.”
The cumulative effect of these trends, aggravated by the death of black activism, has been a growing anxiety among black people that their window of opportunity may be closing, that the long era of a black-dominated social and civil rights agenda may be coming to an end. “The two communities are divergent in that immigrant groups are starting to gain footholds, while blacks feel stymied, or like they’re going backward,” says Raphael Sonenshein, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton. “Latinos are starting to see a glimmer of light. Blacks are seeing it go out.”
So we are still reeling and dealing, or trying to. I know a guy out there braving the elements of change whom Najee Ali would be happy to know, one Fred Thomas, who lives in the hinterlands of the West Adams district — not in the grand gentrified mansions with the maid’s quarters, but in the area well south of Adams Boulevard that is a liberal mix of houses and apartment buildings. Thomas and his family did a stint once in the San Fernando Valley, but they came back. He and his wife were active in growing the nascent South Los Angeles Little League a few years back; Thomas has long been involved with organizing the annual Louisiana to Los Angeles (LALA) Festival, which celebrates specifically Creole and generally Southern influences that shaped the black community here. Thomas has watched things go from good to bad to worse, and figures that what can best be done now is neighborhood micro-management: Absent an articulated black social agenda, tackle the big, seemingly intractable problems of gangs, drugs and shifting demographics through a series of small but doable things, like baseball outings and park festivals. The only trouble is that, these days, the small things are monumental too, in part because there aren’t enough interested parties to see them through. “We have no more immigration,” Thomas says of the black population in Central L.A. “No fresh blood. We’ve spent ourselves out. We’ve given up a toehold on the property. We look around and see fewer and fewer entities created for us, and more and more created for Latinos.”
Thomas states the ambivalence toward Latino growth that many black folks feel: It is a population certainly entitled to its progress — indeed, it is nothing we can stop and, recalling our own immigrant beginnings, most often something we admire — but it also cannot help but stand in relief to our own decline, and heighten the attending anxieties. Arturo Ybarra is a Watts resident and activist who has been trying to get people there to make peace with that ambivalence, to go forward in spite of it. Watts went from majority black to majority Latino well before neighboring South Los Angeles. Ybarra founded an annual black/Latino Cinco de Mayo festival, runs a Latino support organization and also heads up a grassroots effort to organize black and Latino parents around public-education issues in Watts. He’s had, as you might imagine, the least success with the last endeavor; it has proven particularly difficult to sustain black parent involvement. But Ybarra, a man with a cheerful disposition and the immutable patience of a cleric, is not going away or giving up. “Blacks are going to need us,” he says. “They are in a crisis. Latinos have few options, but blacks have even fewer. There’s no sense in fighting. Though certain things imply racial hate, it’s not necessarily that blacks are aggressing against Latinos because they’re Latino. The bottom line is a lack of opportunities, jobs for everyone — that’s the most exacerbating factor. No one wants to look at that, because it’s much easier to play the race thing.”
Yet Ybarra understands that the “race thing” is not immaterial; otherwise he would not have bothered to form a group that builds first on the strength of Latino solidarity. Nor is the “race thing” a case of modern-day xenophobia among colored folks, as the media often makes it out to be before magnanimously dismissing it altogether. Ethnic identity, before being cumbered with politics and focus groups and the latest Disney flick, is a destiny in itself. It is a destiny blacks in the city once had — perhaps they never reached it, but the critical thing is that for a while, anyway, they had something to want. The ranks that are left agree plenty on what they don’t want — graffiti, gangs, more of those pesky low-income housing units that breed trouble — but even all added up these things are not enough of a cause. We have much free-floating desire, but nothing to want. I hope my own desire puts down roots before I wake up one morning to find that it’s led me out of my south-end-of-Wilshire-district apartment to some point too comfortably west of Crenshaw. Or is that Palos Verdes Boulevard? Ah well. Del Amo mall at last — at least — will be within walking distance.