The gunfire was always somewhere else in the city’s endless acres of negotiation and compromise. Never here.
On the 2100 block of 5th Avenue, neighbors get after Mitzi Misawa if she leaves her 100-year-old Craftsman without her cane. Lifelong resident Robyn Nogue welcomes newcomers by gathering ‘round a tree and holding hands. People walk down the street free and unhurried, as if they are living in another century.
No one will tell you this little slice of Mid-City living is perfection. The ceaseless whoosh of traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway climbs the wall at the end of the block, graffiti turns up now and then and poverty drives some families to double up in tired old houses that need work.
But imagine a place where a saxophone-playing Swedish postal worker lives next door to an Ecuadorean homemaker and across from a Jewish Unitarian couple who run their own public relations firm; and up and down the street, neither race nor class gets in the way of asking a neighbor’s children to come up on the porch and tell what they learned in school today.
Imagine a place where an African American kid named Jazz regularly visited his elderly Japanese American neighbor, who always gave him candy for his trouble. She had endured three years of internment during World War II. Jazz called her Grandma.
Death didn’t tip its hand on this stretch of 5th Avenue. The Sunday evening gunshots of a week ago came unexpectedly, assaulting the block’s very spirit.
On the second floor of her house at the corner, Perla Valdez wheeled around looking for her children, realizing in that instant that peace and security were an apparition. Next door to the shooting, Sydney Weisman and her husband, David Hamlin, who had never felt so comfortable in Los Angeles as they did on this block where they are among only a few white families, hit the floor and waited for the piercing echo of gunshots to clear.
Jamiel Shaw Sr. couldn’t wait.
Flying out of his house, he saw his son, shot dead a few paces from home. Jamiel Shaw Jr., or Jazz, as he was known, was a 17-year-old football star at Los Angeles High School. Jazz was beginning to receive a stream of letters from colleges trying to recruit him, just as his father had said they would if Jazz stuck to Dad’s 18-year plan to steer clear of drugs and gangs and focus on a future.
A few nights after the slaying, candles burned on the spot where Mr. Shaw had lost his son, and neighbors came by to hug him and talk about the young man they all mourned. Jazz’s mother was serving in Iraq when her son was shot, Jazz’s father told me, in hopes that making a stand there would keep the United States safe and peaceful.
“It’s not peaceful. My son’s dead,” he said.
The preliminary report from police suggested a random gang hit on a kid who was clean, Latino suspects targeting a black kid, here on a block that had defied ignorance and hatred and knocked down the walls we build between ourselves.
The statistics tell us that although the murder rate is up, gang-related homicides are down so far this year; but with a string of chilling, high-profile murders and shootouts, it doesn’t feel that way.
Something is terribly fractured, our children are random targets, and we’ve sent soldiers off to the wrong war at obscene expense while skimping on police and school budgets and grossly mismanaging gang-suppression strategies. Any mayor who doesn’t stand up every night and scream those words isn’t doing his job.
“Right now we’re getting our butts kicked by the bad guys,” L.A. anti-gang czar Jeff Carr told me, saying that gangs do a better job of drawing kids into their family than society does of discouraging them. Just seven months into his job, Carr says he’s working nonstop trying to fix the problems. But it seems to me there is no epidemic of urgency at City Hall.
“We need outrage,” said Weisman, who told me she has Westside friends who will trip over themselves to help children in Africa but are indifferent to the carnage a few miles to the east.
“Maybe one thing that will come of this is that people won’t be able to say it happened in a neighborhood where it always happens,” said Weisman. “We’re six minutes from Hancock Park.”
On the street where Jazz died, two of his best friends, Marcus, 15, and Phillip, 19, were relighting vigil candles that had blown out. Marcus said different ethnic groups are relatively cool together at L.A. High right now, so even when there’s racial targeting it’s more a gang issue than a race issue. Phillip said his mother had sent him to Catholic school to keep him away from “gangs” and “the ills” of the broader neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean he’s always felt safe.
“There isn’t a rule book” on what to say if gang members confront you as they’re believed to have confronted Jazz, said Phillip. “I just say I don’t bang.” He theorized that some young gangsters were “looking for a body” so they could “get their stripes.”
Nikolai Grut, the man from Sweden, told me he felt compelled to walk the block after the shooting, as a way of affirming that he will not surrender to fear. Robyn Nogue said she was born on 5th Avenue and her neighbors are family, so she won’t leave. The peace is shattered, said Weisman, “but the block is together.”
There is no forgiveness in his heart, Jazz’s father said, but neither is there hate. Love your children, he said. Maybe those who hate, and kill, are the ones whose only family is the gang.
He’s got a point. It’s easy to mourn the so-called good kids, but making the city safe again requires us to love even the kids who aren’t such innocent victims.
Mr. Shaw couldn’t stop talking about his son. Just the night before the shooting, he said, Jazz had wanted to go to a party. No, his father told him. There are too many shootings at parties.
Even at that, he said, he wanted to apologize to his son. He’d made Jazz a promise, he said. Live by Dad’s rules, and the future is yours.
You can’t beat yourself up, I suggested to Mr. Shaw. There are forces beyond the control of any parent.
Mr. Shaw took my hand and turned a shake into a hug. Long after everyone had returned to their homes, the candles burned for Jazz, for all the fallen children, for the wounded spirit of a street where people once walked free and unhurried.