A group of civic activists, united by faith and a belief that the poor economy in the interior of Los Angeles is a social injustice, is preparing to offer bus tours of some of the grittiest pockets of the city, including decayed public housing, sites of deadly shootouts and streets ravaged by racial unrest.
After a VIP preview last weekend, L.A. Gang Tours expects to open to the public in January, giving tourists a look at the cradle of the nation's gang culture -- the birthplace of many of the city's gangs, including Crips and Bloods, Florencia 13 and 18th Street.
"This is ground zero for a lot of the bad in this city. It could be ground zero for a lot of the good too," said Alfred Lomas, a former Florencia member who has become a leading gang intervention worker in South Los Angeles and is spearheading the tours. "This is true community empowerment."
The nonprofit group plans to offer two-hour tours at an initial cost of $65 per adult, with profits funneled back into the community through jobs, "franchised" tours in new areas and micro-loans to inner-city entrepreneurs. Early routes will focus largely on South L.A., with forays through Watts and Florence-Firestone.
The concept appears to have no equal in L.A. -- for good reason, some might argue. It seems to echo, more than anything, the "slum tours" of such sites as India's Dharavi township and Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Those operations have been lauded as innovative economic tools and mechanisms for humanizing poverty -- and also attacked as exploitative and voyeuristic.
The L.A. tour comes after months of planning, and is offered in a spirit of education and public service. Lomas, who will lead tours at first, plans to talk about important chapters in the development of the city's core, such as how racist housing restrictions shaped ethnic enclaves and the formation of gangs.
Other aspects may raise eyebrows. Selling shirts painted on the spot by a graffiti "tagger" is one thing. But one backer said he also hopes to stage dance-offs between locals; tourists would pick a winner and fork over a cash prize. It wasn't long ago that organizers decided against a plan to have kids shoot tourists with water pistols, followed by the sale of T-shirts that read: "I Got Shot in South-Central."
"It's going to be fascinating -- but really controversial," said Francisco Ortega, a field staffer with the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and a respected mediator and neighborhood advisor in South L.A. Ortega said there could be great value in "sensitizing people, connecting them to the reality of what's on the ground."
"But the other side is that it could come across like a zoo or something," Ortega said. "You're being carted about: 'Look at that cholo over there!' It could be perceived as demeaning for the people who are living in these conditions. I don't know how they're going to manage those perceptions."
City Councilwoman Jan Perry said she has offered bus tours of South L.A. herself -- but those were for real estate leaders she was trying to persuade to invest in the neighborhood. She said South L.A. could benefit from an effort to demonstrate "the potential of the community." But she said some aspects of this kind of tourism could go too far.
"It's not right to put people on display," she said.
"It depends on their intent and how they balance it," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks.
Organizers, however, say they've been careful to plan tours that are respectful and neither glorify gangs nor exploit the poor.
"What matters to me is that kids get fed and families get help," Lomas said.
The organization is bolstered by business leaders and gang experts who are contributing start-up capital and advice.
Several are connected to the Dream Center, the L.A. church ministry where Lomas directs a food bank. Lomas credits the organization with helping him to turn his life around.
Kevin Malone, a former Dodgers general manager, sits on the board of the Dream Center's charitable arm and has become one of Lomas' chief supporters. Malone said he has become involved in human-rights causes, such as combating human trafficking. He said the possibility of introducing self-sustaining economic development into the city's poorest neighborhoods is no less of a human rights issue.
"I believe in this," he said.
Other backers include Ron Noblet, a leading gang expert and an early proponent of using gang intervention to augment traditional police tactics. Noblet dismissed any potential for criticism or controversy.
"There will be a lot of people who will be delighted if he fails," Noblet said of Lomas. "But there is clarity in the dream."
Another backer is Terry Jensen, an owner of Seattle-based Duninger Corp., which has subsidiaries in engineering and real estate investment. Jensen is the inventor of the "Jakpak," a jacket that turns into a tent with a built-in sleeping bag. It was designed for the homeless and communities hit by natural disasters.
Jensen, also a minister, has allowed Lomas to use his accountants and marketers. The team, he said, believes the tours could generate $1 million in profit in the first year, and that it would compete for customers with operators of celebrity-home tours in Hollywood.
"I think this will be a destination tour," Jensen said. "I think people will come to Los Angeles to take this tour."
Jensen acknowledged that customers will have to sign a watertight legal waiver. He said that's why it's important to spread the word through affected neighborhoods that the tour is coming -- and, eventually, generating jobs, grants and loans. For example, Jensen said he'd like to see some early profits send a graffiti "tagger" to art school.
"We all know that the day somebody gets hurt, it's over," he said. "We're counting on the fact that the gangs aren't going to mess in their own beds."
There is another reason to spread the gospel: Lomas hopes to use the tours to foster peace on the streets.
In recent weeks, The Times was granted access to a series of "sit-downs" -- meetings -- seeking understandings between gangs that have historically warred: Florencia, 18th Street and Grape Street, the dominant gang in the Jordan Downs public housing development.
Other gangs are being added to the talks and will shape tour routes down the road. Lomas, for instance, hopes to include the South L.A. bus stop where five children and three adults were shot in gang crossfire last year, but needs the local gangs to sign off, giving him "safe passage."
One "sit-down" took place in a Jordan Downs apartment that serves as the hub of the small nonprofit empire of Fred "Scorpio" Smith. The 38-year-old Smith said he joined Grape Street when he was 11 and recently completed a 13-year prison term on drug charges. Influential in Jordan Downs, he now runs a charitable organization, including a program for kids who have dropped out or have been kicked out of local schools.
A small group, led by Lomas, went to the apartment seeking approval to run the tour through Jordan Downs. At first, Smith sounded skeptical.
"A tour?" he asked incredulously. "Of the 'hood?"
Lomas offered to hire two teens from the housing development as part-time tour employees.
"I'm not saying you have to stop shooting each other," Lomas said. "Just allow me a certain time in the day. . . . Just let the bus go through."
"Safe passage is a guarantee," Smith said.
Lomas and Smith discussed a host of delicate issues: tension between African Americans and Latinos; a recent skirmish between Florencia and Grape Street. They discussed building a phone tree to open new lines of communication between their neighborhoods.
But the long-term goal, Lomas explained, is economic viability.
"People around the world have stereotyped us," Lomas said. "I'm talking about sustainable change. But it won't work unless we have unity."
"The people on the ground doing the work," Smith replied. "That's cool. That'd be cool."