COLUMN ONE : L.A.'s Loss: ‘Black Flight’ : An exodus to distant suburbs is depriving the inner city of active, involved families. Now, they are needed more than ever, and there is hope rebuilding efforts will influence them to stay.
Terry Nunley decided to leave Los Angeles the day he picked up $20 from an automated teller machine and a man sidled up next to him, opened his palm, flashed a small pistol and demanded: “Give it up.”
He had been dissatisfied with life in Los Angeles for years, but the holdup was the final provocation. Nunley, who is black and was raised in South-Central Los Angeles, moved to a new housing development in suburban Moreno Valley and began spending up to four hours a day on the freeway commuting to his Los Angeles job.
“That holdup was it for me,” said Nunley, a service representative for the Social Security Administration. “I told my wife: ‘We got to go. Maybe the next time some guy would take my money and then pull the trigger.’ ”
During the past decade, as thousands of black families like the Nunleys moved out of Los Angeles, “black flight” came to be viewed as the inevitable fallout from proliferating drug, crime and gang problems. But in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, community leaders say to truly rebuild and revitalize riot-torn areas, they have to find a way to slow the exodus of middle- and working-class black families from the inner cities.
While white flight has been prevalent for decades in Southern California, the more recent exodus of black families has had a devastating impact on the inner city. Many of those who left are the people who volunteer at church, who are active in political campaigns, who serve as role models for teen-agers, said Patricia Moore, a councilwoman in Compton, which suffered more than $100 million in damage during the unrest. Their departure, Moore said, further contributed to the decline of many once-thriving neighborhoods and weakened the political power of the black community.
Community leaders for years have implored residents to stay in the city, coining the phrase: “Don’t move, improve.” This slogan, however, had little resonance for many longtime residents. They felt their neighborhoods were being abandoned by government and business leaders and saw more opportunity in outlying areas that had safer streets, better schools and less expensive housing.
But the renewed focus on the inner city, as a result of the riots, has given community leaders a new approach and a new optimism, Moore said.
“We can now say to people: ‘Don’t go yet. Wait and see what’s going to happen,’ ” Moore said. “We can show them companies that promise to rebuild here. We can show them businesses that have promised jobs.”
Moore is constantly lobbying residents who are considering moving. Pastors, such as Lonnie Dawson of the New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in South-Central Los Angeles, are encouraging churchgoers in their Sunday sermons to stay in the community. A volunteer coalition of architects, planners and nonprofit developers is attempting to give residents a stake in the rebuilding process by helping them to make key planning and design decisions. And Rebuild L.A. is hoping that by drawing businesses to the community, residents will be encouraged to stay.
Still, these efforts must counter a powerful demographic trend. In the last decade, according to census figures, about 75,000 blacks have moved out of South Los Angeles, many relocating to the Inland Empire, the fastest growing black community in the West. Community leaders know they can’t stop this massive black migration, but if the rebuilding effort is to succeed, they know they must at least slow the exodus.
In many South Los Angeles neighborhoods that are now highly transient, with many blacks moving out and Latinos moving in, community leaders hope to create a sense of permanence. They don’t want black flight or, in the future, Latino flight.
Earsolene Smith, a former elementary school teacher who has lived in Compton more than 30 years, had given up on the city and put her house up for sale. But she recently had a change of heart and decided to stay.
“I’d been fed up for awhile and was ready to leave,” Smith said. “But Pat Moore really did a job on me. She convinced me to face the problems and try to help bring the city back up. . . . And after all the unrest I saw a lot more unity in the community, more people working together to solve problems.”
Others are not so sanguine about the opportunities in Los Angeles and are considering moving. Charles Twitty, 18, and his mother had been planning for the past year to sell their South Los Angeles home and move to Riverside. The unrest just confirmed their decision.
“We felt imprisoned in our own home. . . . We finally left and spent a few days out of town with my sister,” Charles said. “The disturbances just made us feel more sure than ever about leaving.”
The critical question in the months and years to come is whether black residents will respond to the riots like Twitty or like Smith. Will they take advantage of the renewed focus on their community and help rebuild, or will they become even more disillusioned and continue the exodus to the suburbs?
After the Watts riots in 1965, there also was a flurry of attention focused on the inner city and much optimism about rebuilding, Moore said. But eventually businesses abandoned their efforts, government grants were spent and, in the end, nothing much changed.
“We’ve had a lot of promises and a lot of optimism in the last few months,” Moore said. “Everything will hinge on whether people see concrete results--and soon. A bunch of talk just isn’t going to do it.”
Blacks who live in the inner city have to endure what UCLA geographer John Johnson calls a “black tax.” Auto insurance is more expensive, he said, mortgage interest rates are higher, police are more repressive and the quality of education is lower.
Even those who flee to the Inland Empire still must endure agonizing commutes and high smog levels. But for many this is less onerous than the daily frustrations of city life.
As a result, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, from 1980 to 1990, the black population more than doubled to about 170,000 residents. During the same period, the black population of South Los Angeles dropped 20%.
The decline of South Los Angeles, and the eventual black flight, began after the Watts riots, despite all the talk at the time about rebuilding. Many property owners refused to rebuild and financial institutions abandoned the community. During the following decade, thousands of blue collar workers were laid off as major companies, such as Firestone Tire & Rubber, closed nearby factories. At the same time, gangs, violence and drug use worsened, driving more black families out of the inner city.
Many blacks have returned to areas where they were raised--such as Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana--and where they still have family. Las Vegas has become a popular retirement spot for elderly black couples.
But the Inland Empire, according to census figures, has emerged as a favored destination for blacks fleeing Los Angeles’ urban core. Moreno Valley, for example, a city of 132,000 in Riverside County, has seen its black population of 17,000 triple in the last three years. It is one of those new, faceless cities on the edge of the desert, composed of shopping centers, mini-malls and tract homes.
Even the few vestiges of black life blend into the suburban sprawl. The city’s single soul food restaurant, Earlene’s, is in a mini-mall. The hair salon many blacks patronize, Mr. Anthony’s Beauty Salon, is in a shopping center. And a popular black church, the Friendship Christian Fellowship Church, is in an industrial park.
Still, residents say they prefer living in Moreno Valley in order to fall asleep to the sound of crickets instead of gunshots and enroll their children in schools they consider superior. During the riots, residents said they were relieved to be living far from Los Angeles. And many resent the suggestion that they have a responsibility to live in an inner-city neighborhood. Why shouldn’t blacks, asks Johnson of UCLA, have the same opportunity as other ethnic groups who have moved to the suburbs in order to improve their families’ lives?
Nunley, who moved to Moreno Valley after being held up at the automated teller machine, vividly recalls the fires, the looting and the shootings during the Watts riots. But he had the eerie sensation of watching the recent unrest from the vantage point of his air-conditioned living room, 70 miles away. He felt so detached and removed, he said, it was like watching the Gulf War.
“I don’t feel any responsibility to return to L.A.; I feel a responsibility to my family,” Nunley said. “It’s a purely individual move. A guy pulled a gun on me, I’d had it, so I left. That’s it.”
The holdup was just the most recent in a series of indignities he endured while living in Los Angeles. One evening before Nunley moved, he and his wife, who was pregnant, were pulled over by the LAPD and both were “proned out"--forced to lie face down on the cement--for about 30 minutes while officers searched their car. The police found nothing and sent them on their way.
Nunley is willing to endure four hours a day in his car to avoid the problems of “being a young black man in Los Angeles.” And his drive is not as onerous as that of many others because his whole family commutes together. His wife also works in Los Angeles and his two children attend private school nearby.
Many were drawn to Moreno Valley because, with the average resale price for a house at under $140,000, it is one of the few areas in Southern California where they can afford to buy. And even though the real estate downturn has made houses difficult to sell, some who recently left Los Angeles weren’t affected because they are renters who moved to Moreno Valley’s apartment district, known among black residents as “Little Compton.” While those who moved say they are resigned to arising at 4 a.m. and driving to their Los Angeles jobs every morning, the price they pay is less time with their families and increased stress.
“People come home edgy, tired and it puts a great strain on marriages and family life. . . .,” said Art Wooten, pastor of a black church in Moreno Valley. “We’ve had people who’ve had to commute for years stand up in church and announce: ‘Praise the Lord. I found me a local job.’ ”
There are other frustrations for blacks in Moreno Valley. Many who grew up in tight-knit black communities now find themselves the only blacks on their street, far from family and friends, sometimes the victims of racial prejudice. And some residents say they still feel disoriented--a kind of anomie--after moving to the suburbs, with only scattered traces of a traditional black community.
After a long commute home on a recent weekday evening, people file into an industrial park for Bible study at the Friendship Christian Fellowship Church. The topic for the evening is “Did God Ever Send You Anywhere?” Discussion soon drifts to why people moved from Los Angeles to Moreno Valley.
“I have peace of mind here,” one man calls out. “I don’t have to worry about who’s going to rob me on the way to the store.”
“My kids weren’t learning anything in the L.A. schools,” a woman says.
“I was a drug user and a drug seller in L.A.,” a man shouts. “Here, I’ve been saved and delivered.”
One man stands up and says: “Let’s face it. This is black flight--we’re all trying to get away from our own people.”
Others shout across the room in disagreement. Finally Pastor Wooten asks the congregation: “How many of you have better lives since you’ve moved here?” Everyone raises a hand except one woman.
“In L.A. I didn’t have to commute,” she says. “In L.A. there’s entertainment. In L.A. there are jobs. Ain’t no jobs in Moreno Valley.”
Wooten talks about some of his own reasons for moving from Los Angeles to Moreno Valley five years ago. Then, later, he discusses how he and his mother, who still lives in South-Central, responded in different ways to the city following a family tragedy.
After his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting three years ago, Wooten vowed never to live in Los Angeles. His mother, Myrtle Faye Rumph, vowed never to leave. She sold her house to finance a South-Central youth center--the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center--to memorialize her son.
Rumph created an after-school learning program for children, with volunteer teachers. She hopes to keep youths off the streets and away from gangs, so another mother won’t have to endure what she has endured.
She had been struggling to keep the center open, hawking candy bars in front of markets to pay the next month’s rent. But after the publicity the center received following the riots, she received enough donations to expand the center and pay the rent for an entire year.
Cassandra Warren also is committed to the city. Warren and her husband had been renting an apartment in Hollywood and had considered buying a house in the South-Central area. The riots spurred them to act. They recently decided to buy a home at Santa Ana Pines, a new subdivision in Watts.
“The rebellion did it for us . . . we realized it was time to get out of the white neighborhood we were living in and the time to go was now,” Warren said. “I didn’t want to pay $150,000 for a home in an area where I’m not wanted. I wanted to live among my own.”
Thad Williams, one of the developers of Santa Ana Pines, the first commercial single-family subdivision built in Watts since World War II, said he has sold about six homes since the riots. While the riots “made many whites apprehensive about the city,” Williams said, it has given many blacks a reason for hope.
Residents are beginning to see results to longstanding neighborhood problems, said Jackie Dupont-Walker of Rebuild L.A. For decades, South Los Angeles residents have unsuccessfully attempted to control the number of liquor stores in their community. Dupont-Walker said she was on a task force to address this problem 16 years ago, but nothing was done. A few weeks after the riots, however, the City Council placed some limits on liquor stores and required public hearings before any were allowed to be rebuilt.
Before the unrest, there were fewer than 10 markets in Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ South Los Angeles district and more than 250 liquor stores. The community, Ridley-Thomas said, had been trying for decades to attract major chain markets, with no success. But last month Vons promised to build markets in the riot-torn areas, he said, and three other supermarket chains have made commitments to build stores in the area.
“There’s a lot of energy and investment now in a part of the city that had long been ignored,” he said. “This is not all altruism--there’s money to be made. But, in the past, people had racial blinders on and they couldn’t see it.”
But Johnson of UCLA is not as optimistic about life in Los Angeles. He predicts that many black residents “will vote with their feet” and move.
“The rebellion was not just about a verdict in a police brutality trial,” said Johnson, who lives in Southwest Los Angeles. “It reflected 20 years of accumulated frustration and alienation from repeated cases of excessive force by the LAPD, questionable decisions by the criminal justice system and abandonment by the federal government. I’m not sure those frustrations can be quickly changed.”
While Johnson has made black flight from South Los Angeles an area of academic expertise, he may soon gain a more personal perspective on the subject. He is considering leaving the city himself.
From City to Suburbs
During the last decade, there has been a “black flight” out of South Los Angeles, the area roughly defined by Van Ness Avenue, the Santa Monica Freeway, Alameda Street and Rosecrans Avenue. Many families have relocated to the Inland Empire, the fastest-growing black community in the West. Here are the changes in black population figures:
SOUTH LOS ANGELES 1980 1990 % Change 369,504 295,312 -20% RIVERSIDE COUNTY 1980 1990 % Change 30,088 59,966 +99% SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY 1980 1990 % Change 46,615 109,162 +134%
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census. Compiled by Richard O’Reilly, Times director of computer analysis, and Maureen Lyons, statistical analyst.