Those Who Stayed : Feeling Right at Home in South-Central L.A. : They Have a Commitment to Their Inner-City Neighborhoods

Times Staff Writer

South-Central Los Angeles is an area where some police precincts have three times the number of homicide investigators as other districts in the city, yet many residents fear to venture out alone after dark, and most stores and shops close promptly at 6 p.m.

In its 43 square miles, 85 people have been killed this year in gang-related violence, and police estimate more than half the victims were innocent bystanders.

It is an area where family income is low, and the dropout rate (at Locke, Jordan and Manual Arts high schools) the highest in the city; where many homes, even in pockets of relative affluence, have barred windows and multilocked doors.

Yet there are those who stay in these neighborhoods, making a commitment to the inner city when their economic circumstances otherwise would allow them to leave.

They appear to be the exceptions to recent claims by activists and scholars that middle- and working-class blacks are leaving the inner city in large numbers, depriving the remaining population of positive role models.

Want to Contribute to Community

These homeowners remain, they say, because they love their neighborhoods and want to contribute to the community. Most concede it is harder for families with children to stay in an area where street gangs promise strength and glory in numbers and drugs are routinely sold on many street corners. Nevertheless, residents such as Sandra Scranton have chosen to stay in South-Central Los Angeles and raise their families there, though Scranton sends her daughter, Kiko, 16, to Catholic school in Playa del Rey.

Scranton, 42, runs a nursery school in Compton for 51 students and will soon open a temporary child-care service at the Kenneth Hahn shopping plaza in Willowbrook. She also owns four houses in South-Central Los Angeles in addition to the four-bedroom, two-story Willowbrook residence where she lives with her daughter.

The residence is one of 33 large, well-maintained houses just a few blocks south of Watts between 122nd and 124th streets east of the Martin Luther King Medical Center. The houses were moved to the spot by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee and sold to residents.

When Scranton bought the home six years ago, she had lived in Watts or South-Central Los Angeles almost all her life.

Sitting in her family room one evening recently, near a portrait of Malcolm X and a personal computer, Scranton said she purchased the home because her parents stressed putting things back into the community.

"I feel that we need role models," she said. "Otherwise everyone will just move out. When I moved here the kids in the neighborhood asked me 'Why didn't you move to Beverly Hills?' I said some good people have to stay."

A recent study indicates that many working- and middle-class blacks are ignoring that admonition. Based on U.S. Census data, the study by James H. Johnson, an associate professor of geography at UCLA, concludes that blacks are leaving Los Angeles in increasing numbers and are moving out of the state or to other metropolitan areas such as Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties.

Johnson called the pattern of increasing departures "black flight" and said that a new Los Angeles economy may be responsible.

"Los Angeles has shifted from a regional center of services and manufacturing to an international center of retail trade and other economic activity," he said. Some people who cannot find work ". . . are having to vote with their feet, if you will, in response to the changes."

The migration from the inner city disturbs some observers who argue that black middle- and working-class families should stay in the neighborhoods of their origin and provide examples.

That thinking rankles others, who argue that even a mass infusion of professionals into the inner city wouldn't do much good without other types of help.

Lorn Foster, a Claremont resident who teaches government at Pomona College but grew up in Los Angeles, said he understands the frustration of the inner-city black community when potential leaders move to the suburbs, but that he thinks it's unfair to ask blacks to move back home.

"People often ask me, 'Why don't you move back to Los Angeles?' I find I'm sort of irritated by that comment," he said. "No one asked middle-class Jews to move back to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles in 1950 or the middle-class Irish to move back to Charlestown or South Boston."

Foster said it's unfortunate that middle-class and professional blacks are leaving poor neighborhoods, but he thinks part of the insistence for blacks to return to the inner city is prompted by white guilt.

"I think what we're seeing is whites saying to middle-class and black professionals that somehow you should do more to make your community a better place," he said.

"And that doesn't address itself to the larger structural issues, which are unemployment, poor quality housing, a school system that is in disarray and other environmental factors that make it impossible for people on the bottom of the social ladder to advance."

A Reason to Stay

Middle-class workers and professionals who remain in Watts and South-Central Los Angeles say that improving unemployment, housing and schools are important to them, but they also stay in the area for another reason--they like their neighborhoods.

Although statistics show that more violent crimes are committed in Watts and South-Central Los Angeles than in other parts of the city, police say that some parts of the area are safer than others.

Capt. Valentino Paniccia of the Southeast Division said he believes there is less crime in some areas "where people own residences or are buying them or renting them and the homes are well maintained."

Paniccia said the well-kept properties reflect the dwellers' concerns with "themselves and their neighbors." These residents, he said, "keep an eye on their neighborhood" and keep in touch with police to report crimes or suspicious events.

Gaston and Sandra Green say they and their neighbors have protected each other since they moved into their home in 1965. As a result they have not had a burglary for 20 years and their only other loss, a stolen car, was recovered within a few days. They have a feeling of safety, they say, in the two-story, wood and brick house near 135th Street.

It was here among rows of small, well-maintained stucco homes and tidy lawns a few miles southwest of Watts that the Greens raised three children, including Gaston IV, and sent them through the nearby Gardena public schools.

Gaston IV, 21, is now an All-American running back candidate at UCLA and on weekends when he isn't racing through opposing backfields he returns to the house to see friends. Friendships are also what keep his parents in the area.

"Everyone living here has been here over 20 years," said the elder Green, 47, a trim, slender, bearded man who ran the hurdles 25 years ago at Arizona State University and is now an assistant dean for the Los Angeles Community College system. "The only time someone (new) moves in is when someone dies and a house has been sold. . . .

'Watched Children Grow Up'

"We thought about moving. For a while around 1976 we had three children in one bedroom. But the longer we stayed the more difficult it was to leave our friends from one end of the block to another. We watched children grow up and go off to college and come back and be successful."

Instead of moving, the Greens decided to expand the house they had and a small, one-story residence became a two-story house with four bedrooms and a den.

Now, with remodeling long since completed, the Greens plan to stay. Sandra Green, a supply support assistant at Rockwell International, said she sometimes hears expectations from friends--blacks and whites alike--that they'll move as soon as they can.

'Why Should I Move?'

"It's like 'Can't you move?' " Sandra Green said. "They'll say if little Gaston makes it (financially), I know you're moving." That's a mistaken assumption, she said recently. "Why should I move? I live here because I choose to."

Actor William Allen Young is also making improvements in his house--a medium-sized, three-bedroom stucco structure near the corner of 122nd Street and Budlong Avenue. It is in a predominantly black South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood about three miles southwest of Watts.

Young, 33, who played Pvt. Henson in "A Soldier's Story" and an assistant prosecutor in "The Jagged Edge," bought the home two years ago that he shares with his wife, Helen.

Although he says a severe drug problem exists a few blocks to the north and it is common for police to run search helicopters overhead and to cordon off nearby streets while seeking suspects, there are no bars on his windows and the homes on his block are almost never burglarized or vandalized.

Young knows the history of the homes because he lives across the street from the house where he grew up. The recollections of his youth helped shape his decision to buy in the neighborhood.

"I remembered people who lived here and people who lived here before them. . . . There's a certain sense of security in that," he said. "It's a lot of family in the neighborhood and a sense of protecting each other. . . . And also that part of you that needs to feel a closeness to your people is satisfied by where I live. . . ."

Even those who love their neighborhoods as much as Young, however, say that it is hard to raise children there.

George and Elizabeth Green, for example, worry often about their children being harmed or exposed to drug dealers.

The Greens are not worrying needlessly. Once when Elizabeth Green got into her car and left her four-bedroom, two-story home near the Martin Luther King Medical Center, she heard gunshots when she reached the corner. She backed up to her front door, turned around, and went the other way.

And the Greens, who live next to Sandra Scranton, used to see drug dealers waiting in front of their house for buyers.

To fight negative influences, the Greens send their children out of the neighborhood whenever possible and keep them busy.

Their son George Jr., 9, attends private school in Long Beach and their daughter, Alice, 8, goes to a nearby Compton school because it provides a special class for her severe learning disability.

Although the Greens work long hours as nurses at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, they spend much of their free time transporting their children to activities. George Jr. sings in a school choir, attends weeknight church activities, plays softball and will soon start music lessons, which consume most of his remaining free time.

"It's planned. We go to great length to keep him involved so his time with neighborhood children will be limited," Elizabeth Green said. "It has nothing to do with the children. Many are beautiful. When they come here they are very respectful. But they come from homes where you just don't have enough positive stimulation."

Can See Improvement

Despite the problems in the neighborhood, the Greens say they feel reasonably safe and can see improvement. They have never been robbed and the drug dealers who worked out of an apartment across the street have moved at least to the other end of the block.

That's why the Greens are staying. "Our neighbors felt maybe we could make a difference if we bent (worked) together," Elizabeth Green said.

By remaining in the inner city, the Greens strive to arrest the trend of "black flight."

In his new book, "The Truly Disadvantaged," University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson argues that middle- and working-class black families nationwide have left the inner city in great numbers, leaving a leadership void.

As role models, Wilson writes, they perform an important function, helping ". . . keep alive the perception that education is meaningful, that steady employment is a viable alternative to welfare, and that family stability is the norm, not the exception."

Of course not everyone accepts Wilson's hypothesis. Bart Landry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, says that few middle- and working-class blacks have left the inner city for suburbia.

"The amount of black suburbanization is still very small," Landry, the author of "The New Black Middle Class," said by telephone. "By 1980 only 6% of all blacks lived in suburban areas.

'Pure Fantasy'

"There are pockets within the inner city which are predominantly poor," Landry said. "But the idea that this leaves the inner city devoid of role models is pure fantasy. . . . Nobody including Wilson has shown that the absence of middle-class blacks in those poor neighborhoods has any impact on the aspirations of the poor. They assume that.

"I don't have any data to the contrary, but I'm going to give you another assumption, and the assumption is that success models in the United States are accessible to anyone. . . . You know what success means because the . . . media is full of these success images. Television, billboards and movies show what people are."

William Allen Young disagrees with Landry. Young thinks there are too few role models in the inner city, and part of the reason is that blacks and whites alike misunderstand the area.

Young says that despite the major problems there are good neighborhoods in the inner city, and that to alleviate misconceptions, residents have a responsibility.

"You have to offer them a chance to come and take a look," he said. "That's the answer when somebody says 'How can you live down here, William?' The people who have left, I invite them to come back and even buy some property. The area has not run down. It's in better shape than it was."

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