COVER STORY : THE MYTH OF South-Central : More a Stereotype Than a Place, It Is Defined By Ethnicity and Negative Media Images Rather Than Street Boundaries.
At the opening of a minority AIDS hospice, City Councilman Nate Holden pointedly informed the audience that the facility on Adams Boulevard near Western Avenue was not in South-Central Los Angeles.
Minutes later, state Sen. Diane Watson contradicted Holden, emphatically stating that the center was in South-Central.
Their disagreement illustrates the ongoing debate about South-Central: Where is it? What is it? Should it be shunned or embraced?
The answers transcend geography.
South-Central has become as much a stereotype as a place, defined more by ethnicity and negative media images than street boundaries. Last year’s civil disturbances affected many areas, but it was South-Central that was thrust into the national consciousness, bolstering impressions of a community embroiled in chaos as Watts was after 1965.
“South-Central has come to mean inner city, period. And inner city means wherever there’s black folks and brown folks, but black folks in particular,” said Franklin Gilliam, a UCLA political science professor.
The typecasting of South-Central as an area mired in crime, poverty and violence has taken its toll on the more than 500,000 African-Americans and Latinos who live there. Some say it has heightened feelings of despair. Others complain it has created divisions between those who accept South-Central despite the image and those who want to distance themselves from that image.
Yet there are people who have emerged with newfound pride in their community. Younger generations embrace the defiant spirit of rap songs that celebrate the ‘hood as a place where only the strong survive. Longtime residents push to expose the flip side of South-Central where middle-class families, model students and community activists contradict the stereotype.
“People think it’s the Third World here, that crime and drugs are only here and nowhere else, but that’s not true,” said Cristina Diaz, a 22-year resident of South-Central and a secretary at the Nativity Catholic Church. “South-Central is like everyplace else: It’s not all bad.”
James Hall, owner of Soul Brothers Kitchen on Florence Avenue since 1969, considers South-Central home, even though he now lives in Inglewood.
“In this whole world, nowhere is paradise,” Hall said. “I’m proud of South-Central because there are positive-thinking people that I know here.”
However, South-Central certainly faces more than its share of social ills. About 29% of the residents who are 25 or older have less than a ninth-grade education, compared to 18% citywide, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.
According to the latest statistics, about 43% of the reported homicides and 30% of robberies in Los Angeles in the first four months of 1992 were from police bureaus that cover South-Central. Census figures also report 33% of South-Central households are below the national poverty level and the median household income is $18,991 compared to $30,925 in Los Angeles, overall.
But people who live and work in the area contend that South-Central’s problems have been exaggerated by news reports, films and rap music that highlight the violence.
Daisy Peters, a member of the 92nd Street Better Home and Improvement Club and a resident of South-Central for 42 years, said the community has more well-kept homes occupied by middle- and working-class families than broken-down buildings and garbage-strewn streets.
Hall found this same sense of community in 1963 when he moved to South-Central from Northern California. Then, the area was known as the “Negro community” or the “Central area.” Two years later, it became Watts.
“After the ’65 riots everything black was simply Watts. That was the general term,” Hall said.
The black community objected to being called Watts and consequently was tagged as the “curfew area,” then “the minority community” and “the 77th police area” in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, according to Jesse Brewer, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. By the ‘80s, “South-Central” came into vogue.
The origin of the name, however, is a mystery.
Some people say South-Central developed because of the two police bureaus--South and Central--that cover the area. Brewer, who recently retired as an assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, says it did not. Senior planner Jim Anderson of the city’s planning department believes the term came from city planning maps drawn up in the early ‘60s that marked off sections of the city.
Most people interviewed say the media made it up.
“This was all designated by the media. We never called it any of that,” said Brewer. “We had our own neighborhoods that we identified with and called by name.” A few of them were Avalon Gardens, Green Meadows and Athens Park.
After last spring’s civil unrest, South-Central’s boundaries became a blur, extending anywhere African-Americans and Latinos lived that was south of the Santa Monica Freeway. The riots prompted researchers, academics and agencies to try to pinpoint South-Central.
The U.S. Census Bureau mapped out South-Central to include Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills, but excluded USC. The Times created a committee to define neighborhoods and areas of the city and drew its own boundaries for South and South-Central Los Angeles. Other experts and residents disagree about whether Watts is in South-Central.
According to the city planning department, South-Central is bounded by Pico Boulevard to the north, approximately 120th Street to the south, Figueroa Street to the east and Arlington and Van Ness avenues to the west.
For some in the community, boundaries are meaningless.
“There’s no such thing as a South-Central bounded by specific streets,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose district encompasses most of that area. “And frankly, our plates are so full of housing concerns and health needs that we can’t waste our time trying to stop people from referring to us en masse.”
Councilman Holden disagrees. It is crucial to point out where South-Central begins and ends, he said.
“We can’t keep allowing people to continue classifying South-Central incorrectly as any place you find blacks regardless of where it is,” Holden said.
But Watson (D-Los Angeles) said it is a waste of time to quibble over the matter. Instead, she said, people should highlight South-Central’s positive aspects and use the term to their own advantage.
But most people interviewed said positive stories about South-Central rarely are told in the news media. Residents, community leaders and city officials also blame the media for lumping distinct, predominantly black neighborhoods near Culver City such as the Crenshaw district, Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights under the heading South-Central.
“The media is very guilty of perpetuating the myth as well as the negative image,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. “South-Central became a code word, a convenience for some in the media to define where and how black people live.”
The large influx of Latinos into South-Central altered that definition, but not the effects. Latinos interviewed say they experience prejudices similar to those of African-Americans because they live in South-Central.
Diaz, of the Nativity Catholic Church, said her children’s school friends would not come to visit because the family lives on 59th Street near Vermont Avenue. Friends living in the Eastside also are afraid of the area, she said.
“They say things like, ‘Oh, you live in South-Central. You’re dirty, you’re poor, you’re a drug dealer.’ . . . That’s just not right,” said Diaz, who raised three children in South-Central. All of them went on to college.
Latinos suffer as the ignored minority in South-Central, even though they comprise 48% of the Census’ South-Central area. There are virtually no Latino organizations in the area and no Latino elected officials. And only recently have black South-Central groups begun working in the Latino community.
“It was only through the riots that the Latino community got noticed,” said Martha Arevalo, spokeswoman for CARECEN, a Pico-Union based Latino organization. But even then the publicity served only to brand Latinos with the stigma of South-Central, she said. They did not reap the federal assistance and corporate grants after the riots.
“People still see South-Central as being African-American,” Arevalo said. “They believe if they help African-Americans then they’ve helped South-Central, but the truth is they’ve only helped half of South-Central.”
South-Central’s image as a war zone has led some institutions, businesses and individuals to distance themselves from the area.
Although several maps and studies place USC in South-Central, President Stephen Sample points to a study by the Community Redevelopment Agency that links the campus to the Downtown area. USC demographer Dowell Myers said the university is part of the border of South-Central.
“People exclude USC because it goes against what they consider as South-Central,” Myers said.
After last year’s civil unrest, which destroyed several businesses near the university, fear about safety around USC was high, Sample said. Despite an increase in enrollment this year, questions of safety persist.
“Since the riots, the overwhelmingly negative attention by the national media . . . has created a stumbling block for applicants,” Sample said. “It will take us some time to get over that, but it will happen.”
Farther west, along the blurred boundary lines of Crenshaw and View Park, some business people and residents proclaim they are not in South-Central, creating tensions within the African-American community.
“You have this alienation between poor blacks or poverty-stricken blacks who believe those more well-off are against them. But that’s not true,” Mack said.
To Herman Folk, a 38-year-old unemployed general contractor, South-Central stands for survival. “It’s not survival in Baldwin Hills. They don’t understand,” he said. “I’m proud to say I’m from South-Central.”
Crenshaw resident James McNeely identifies with South-Central simply because he’s black.
As he strung Christmas lights in front of his Mullen Avenue home, McNeely, 56, said he has been treated better by police in his Crenshaw neighborhood. “But let’s face it . . . if I drove from here to Florence and Normandie and was stopped, they’d fling me out of the car just like I was any other black man, no matter where I lived.”
But it is more than friction within the community that worries people. South-Central residents have long complained about unfair treatment by banks and other businesses.
Community leaders say the media distortions are largely responsible for other problems, such as redlining by the insurance industry and banks and the area’s dearth of shopping centers.
“South-Central is dubbed a high-risk area and anyone living in that geographical area is going to have problems getting a loan or especially auto insurance,” Mack said. “It doesn’t matter what your record is like.”
Hall recalls the trouble he had getting insurance in 1969 for his business after the Watts riots. Today, he says, some of his friends who live in South-Central have mailing addresses in other areas to get better automobile insurance rates.
Said Holden: “Redlining has been a real problem in the community. You say ‘South-Central,’ they see ‘black, Latino, no money, big risk problem.’ ”
For some, the negatives associated with South-Central have created a sense of despondency. Phyllis Williams, a math teacher at Manual Arts High School, sees it in some of her students.
“The negativity of what’s perceived to be South-Central is dumped on these kids and then they don’t feel like they’re worthy of wanting a future,” she said. “They feel lost. People are just looking at them like numbers and they feel like nothing.
“But I don’t think the kids should be ashamed of where they’re from. It really means something to come from South-Central,” Williams said.
As with Folk, many young people--predominantly African-Americans--have latched on to a growing pride in South-Central. It was spawned in rap songs of the late ‘80s and grew with the 1991 release of the film about life in South-Central, “Boyz N the Hood.” Pride has flourished since the civil unrest as a younger generation sports South-Central T-shirts and baseball caps like badges of honor. And the lyrics of such rappers as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Da Lynch Mob that speak to life on the streets of South-Central are repeated by some youths like sermons.
Said Terence Nelson, a 16-year-old junior at Manual Arts: “I’m not ashamed to say I’m from South-Central, ‘cause this is my place. This is who I am.”
Latino youths--as well as much of the Latino community--have a different kind of pride in South-Central as the new group in the community, said Arturo Ibarra, director of the Watts-Century Latino Organization. The history of the area is different for them than for African-Americans, he said.
“For us, this is our community; this is our home,” Ibarra said. “We are working here, we are living here, we are raising our children here. For that we are proud to be here.”
Seana Stewart, a 15-year-old Manual Arts student, said she is proud to be from South-Central too. But like many, she doubts the perceptions of South-Central will change anytime soon.
“I don’t think they’ll ever stop calling us what they do or looking at us in a certain way,” Stewart said. “Any place you go . . . they look at you different when you say you’re from South-Central.”