Considering South-Central by Another Name

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to replace the term “South-Central Los Angeles” with “South Los Angeles” on city documents and signs, a move supporters said would help erase a stigma that has dogged the southern part of the city.

After the vote, several local television stations said they would follow the city’s lead and eliminate the use of “South-Central” in news reports. Despite that, some city officials suggested that the name change would do little to address the underlying social ills that have fed the perception of South-Central as depressed and crime-ridden.

Without broader efforts to improve schools and increase jobs in the area, “South Los Angeles” will eventually evoke the same connotation, said Councilman Nate Holden, who represents portions of the southern part of the city.


“Changing the name doesn’t change the circumstances,” said Holden, who nevertheless voted for the measure.

However, supporters said discouraging the use of “South-Central” would help many neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica Freeway reclaim their identities and provide a morale boost that could translate into other benefits.

“With a name change and a new attitude of the people, maybe when the government decides to bring jobs in, they will bring them to our neighborhood, instead of ignoring us,” said Vermont Square resident Carol Black, who attended the council meeting.

Helen Johnson, the 72-year-old Vermont Square resident who proposed the measure, was jubilant after the council vote. “This is a day that I shall never forget,” she said.

Johnson immediately moved to broaden her campaign beyond City Hall, blaming the news media for perpetuating a term that has become synonymous with urban poverty and asking reporters to do a better job of identifying the neighborhoods they are covering.

“Anything bad happens, you get on TV, and the first thing you say was ‘South-Central,’ ” said Johnson, standing before a bank of television cameras. “When you report the news about anything south of the freeway, I wish you’d be fair and just and please get your facts right.”

“I think the media can make you or either break you ... and this is what you’ve done to us, you’ve broke us,” she added.

Several television news directors defended their usage of the term, saying they try to be accurate and use specific community names. Paul Skolnick, the managing editor of KCBS Channel 2 and KCAL Channel 9, said those stations will substitute South Los Angeles for South-Central.

“It is station policy to try to refer to neighborhoods as specifically as possible,” he said.

Cheryl Fair, news director at KABC Channel 7, said her station would also make the change. “We at this station do our best to accurately name neighborhoods,” she said.

The Times’ policy is to use the term “South-Central” when referring to a specific community, said Clark Stevens, senior editor for copy desks. The newspaper determines neighborhood names based on many factors, he said, including city maps and local traditions.

“We may be reaching a point when those traditions are changing with regard to South-Central,” he added.

Several council members said they hope the new policy would encourage all of the media to drop the use of a name that originally applied to the black community that flourished along South Central Avenue from the 1920s to 1940s. As African Americans moved west, the name South-Central followed them, eventually gaining a negative connotation as drugs and gangs took hold in the area.

“I think this is a case of false identity,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn. “This has been a crime for many neighborhoods and many communities who have been lumped together under the mostly derogatory term of South-Central Los Angeles.”

Holden questioned how widespread the desire for a name change was, noting that he was not contacted about it by any of the neighborhood councils in his district.

And some residents who attended the council meeting said that the name change would merely be cosmetic.

“I don’t think it will have much effect at all if there are no other changes,” said Charles Brister, a Baldwin Hills resident who runs a referral service for black-owned businesses. “The main thing people are looking for are jobs.”

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who wrote the motion to change the name, said it was just a small piece of a larger effort to revitalize the community.

After the vote, Councilman Tom LaBonge presented Johnson with a large blue street sign that read “South Los Angeles.”

Johnson clapped with delight. “I can’t wait to see it go up,” she said.

But the sign will sit for a while in Perry’s office. City officials are not sure where, exactly, it should go.