Friday, March 28, 2008

L.A. Times Explores Gang Violence, Sort of

The ghetto sucks.

This should have been the title of a Los Angeles Times article printed today called “Living with Staggering Violence in South L.A.” because that’s just about the only point it makes.

The article was written in light of a shooting that happened just over a month ago at a bus stop at the intersection of Vernon and Central. It involved a 24-year-old man police have identified as a Four Trey Crip opening fire on two men climbing off of a bus. Only, the man missed his targets and ended up shooting eight bystanders, five of whom were schoolchildren.

No one was killed in the shooting but, in its wake, the reporter said that residents expect little to change. After a round of community meetings, more police patrolling the streets and calls for jobs programs, after-school programs and the like, attention to gang crime will fade and a new bout of violence will begin, wrote the reporter.

The problem with the article, though, is that it, too, offers no solutions. There’s no examination of previous efforts to curb gang violence and why they didn’t work. There’s no interviews with lawmakers about what their plans are to tackle the problem.

Instead, we get one stereotype after another about life in South Central.

Exhibit A: Today, South-Central is synonymous with urban blight.
Exhibit B: Much of the community is now a transient, threadbare tapestry of people whose common thread is poverty.

After uttering the same stereotypes we have heard about South Central for decades, the reporter goes on to quote neighborhood residents who are fed up with life in the hood, but the remarks they make are just as tired as his observations. A beauty salon owner is sick of painting over graffiti, and a pastor calls for a return to old-fashioned values. “You have people who live next door to somebody and don’t even know their names,” he says. “People have no respect anymore.”

Another resident says that the answer to life in South Central is to keep on going. “The strong survive,” he says. That cliché may be true, but it, like the article as whole, offers no guidance for stemming violence in the community.

To pad this relatively hollow article with some meat, the reporter writes a two paragraph history of South Central. Its gist? South L.A. didn’t always suck. The neighborhood was once a cultural epicenter—filled with restaurants, hotels and music centers—the left coast version of Harlem during its renaissance, the reporter writes. Thrown in with that history is a brief description of area gangs and the turfs they control.

And that’s all.

At the end of the article, all we really know is that life in South Central is tough, has been tough and will continue to be so. Despite providing very little new information about gang violence in South Central and proposed strategies to combat the problem, “Living with Staggering Violence in South L.A.” is one of the most read articles on the Times’ Web site today.

The article’s popularity brings to mind a blog entry Christian Lander of the Web site “Stuff White People Like” wrote on the topic of awareness. He believes awareness is the “process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else, like the government, will fix it.”

In this case, we have an article with no fixes that describes a problem no one has fixed. What was the point?

1 comment:

Nittle said...

Well written commentary on this piece and the common idea of South Los Angeles. To quote the salon owner, describing the neighborhood, "Danger. Every day, danger."

I think this sums up most peoples' basic notion of South LA, or South Central, as it's still commonly called. What none of these articles/stories tend to point is the diversity of South LA, not just culturally/ethnically, but economically as well. By reading articles like this, you'd think South LA is a isolated and homogeneous neighborhood. But it is just a sprawling complicated piece in the larger Southern California quilt. In some ways, South LA is a microcosm for the larger city, both its good streets and its rough streets. Problems with crime, gang activity, graffiti and homelessness are common in so many parts of the city, from Hollywood to Downtown, the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel. And the solutions are just as complicated and widespread.

After working in South LA for five years, what I find interesting are those families who do not make up "a transient, threadbare tapestry of people whose common thread is poverty," to quote the article. There are many working class and middle class folks who choose to stay in the neighborhoods, because for all of the stigma, the neighborhoods are who they are, their families, their children, their schools, their "home."

Reminds me of Cisneros from House on Mango Street, in the vignette, "Those Who Don't":

"Those who don't know any better come into our neighborhood scared.... But we aren't afraid... All around brown, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That's how it goes."

The problems that plague South Central are so complex. In order to get anywhere, a multidimensional portrait of the region needs to be painted first. With such a thumbnail sketch, the LA Times is doing nothing more than perpetuating stereotypes, reinforcing this prevailing idea of South LA that really is a mental block to so many here.

This commentary does affect the way people in South LA view themselves. If everyone told you were worthless, your neighborhood was a blight on the city, your family is a charity case; if that was all that was expected of you, you might just have to prove them right. We must dare to expect more out of the "inner city," because the inner city is the core. LA is only as strong as its weakest neighborhoods. And since the Times plays a role in the perception of our city, they hold a responsibility elevating the conversation.