Living with staggering violence
The sun splashed onto the roof of a church, filling the faces of two golden statues of angels who opened their arms to the sky. It was the first light of the morning, which made everything look pretty, even the hardened heart of South Los Angeles.
Don’t be fooled, said 50-year-old Darrell Pruitt, waving a crooked cautionary finger. He walked down Central Avenue, carrying a dripping cup of coffee back to his one-room apartment, as he does each morning before work.
“All the stuff that’s hiding,” he called over his shoulder, “it’ll all come out.”
He was right. Before long, a pile of thin blankets atop an abandoned couch began to stir. A homeless man, 83 years old, wiped the sleep from his filthy face, stretched his good arm and rubbed his shrunken, arthritic one. He hauled himself over a rusty fence to start his day, his sandals crunching on a bed of cheap discarded lighters, their silver tops popped off so they could be used for smoking crack.
The hair stylist arrived at work, pleasantly surprised that gangs had not, as they do two or three times a week, tagged the white walls of her salon with black paint. The pastor sprinkled a rack of ribs with paprika; he’d sell them at cost a few hours later, hoping to help a few hungry people get at least one solid meal that day. Two men with mean eyes stepped behind a dumpster, shot up, urinated and emerged again, one of them cursing madly.
It has been a month and a day since a gunman opened fire on two men stepping off a bus at the corner of Central and Vernon avenues. He missed his targets, as far as investigators can determine, but hit eight other people, all innocents. They included five kids, students walking home from George Washington Carver Middle School. Police have charged Billy Ray Hines, 24, with the crime.
Mario Martinez, 46, was in his girlfriend’s Vernon Avenue bakery, the Panaderia Zeragoza, where he sweeps the stoop every morning, when he heard the shots.
“I ran down there. We all did,” he said. “I saw a boy still sitting on the bus stop bench. He was not hit but he could not move. He was too scared. There was a lady at his feet, lying on the floor. Lots of blood.”
Somehow, no one was killed.
Hines has pleaded not guilty to a series of felonies that could bring him a life prison term. Police are still searching for the intended victims, who have not come forward.
Hines is a Four Trey Crip, said Los Angeles Police Lt. Paul Stalker, commanding officer of detectives in the department’s Newton Division, which covers 10 square miles of South Los Angeles, a shifting mosaic of gang territories.
The gunman’s intended victims, investigators believe, were probably Bloods, perhaps members of a branch called AFC, or “All for Crime.” Generally, Bloods control the east side of Central and Crips the west. Latino gangs -- 38th Street, Playboys, Barrio Mojados -- are sprinkled on both sides. The avenue is a spine of tension and, routinely, staggering violence.
“You’ve just got to keep moving,” Pruitt said. “The strong survive.”
The shooting shocked the city, but around here, most say it was an aberration only in the sense that the outside world noticed.
Many residents say they can predict everything that will happen now. There will be community meetings, calls for reform -- for jobs programs, mentoring programs, after-school programs. Solemn promises will be made. Police will put more cars on the streets. Violence will ebb. And then, before real change can take root, the city’s attention will begin to drift, and a new cycle will begin.
“Danger. Every day, danger,” said Diva LaVerde, 59, proprietor of Diva’s Beauty Salon, on Vernon just east of Central.
LaVerde, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia 40 years ago, pays $750 a month in rent for her tiny salon, which she has operated for 19 years. She is enormously proud of it. Dozens of glittery angels hang from the ivy-covered ceiling. She has a special barber’s chair she uses for kids; it’s outfitted like a tractor, with a red steering wheel.
But more than once, she has herded customers into the back corner when gunshots have rung out on the street. Last year, two men were shot at the barber shop across the street. The owner of the liquor store a few doors down was killed during a robbery. In between is a drug house that is often bustling by 9 a.m.
“I don’t ask questions,” she said. “I don’t call the police.” No one does, she explained, not so much because the police are feared but because you will become a target yourself if you are known to have ratted out a criminal.
Gangs cover the walls of her building with graffiti so routinely that she keeps a large paint brush and two gallons of white paint under one of her sinks. She begins many of her workdays by painting over the graffiti, often hauling one of her salon chairs onto the sidewalk to reach the highest part of the wall.
“I love my salon,” she said. “But I’m tired. I don’t want to paint anymore.”
Central and Vernon was once L.A.'s answer to the Harlem Renaissance -- never wealthy, but an epicenter of African American culture and minority entrepreneurialism, home to successful black hotels, black restaurants, black music halls where Art Tatum and Charlie Parker played.
There were restaurants like Ivie’s Chicken Shack, elegant despite the name, run by the great Ivie Anderson, a singer who performed with Duke Ellington in the 1930s. There was Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a record shop so influential in the music industry that disc jockeys broadcast live from the front window.
Today, “South-Central” is synonymous with urban blight. Much of the community is now a transient, threadbare tapestry of people whose common thread is poverty.
“There are a lot of good people in this neighborhood,” said Robert Cordova Jr., the principal of nearby Harmony Elementary School. “But they are all afraid.”
The school was built four years ago for 600 students; there are 812 kids enrolled today, all but five of them too poor, officially, to afford lunch.
Cordova, an educator for 25 years, spends much of his time in the wake of the shootings lobbying police to deal with issues like mobile prostitution vans and working with the city attorney’s office to crack down on unscrupulous landlords who run slum apartments where many of his students live in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
At the United House of Prayer for All People, 58-year-old pastor Wilbert Swaringer helps prepare scores of meals in the basement each morning -- macaroni, ribs, thin steaks.
In sermons or just walking down the street, the minister tells anyone who will listen that the neighborhood needs to retreat to old-fashioned principles and practices -- discipline, respect, corporal punishment.
“The analogy that I give people is that it’s like a roomful of flies,” he said. “I can kill as many flies as I want. But until I correct the hole in the screen, I’ve got a problem.”
He slammed another rack of ribs in a pan for emphasis and sprinkled it with industrial-sized tubs of paprika and garlic salt.
“People are afraid to correct their own children,” he said. “You have people who live next door to somebody and don’t even know their names. People have no respect anymore.”
As he spoke, his wife of 31 years, Brenda, walked in to pitch in with meal preparation.
The first thing she did was turn on a television set in the corner that showed four closed-circuit security camera shots of the doors to the church.
“We’ve started seeing people robbing a church,” he said. “When did you ever see that?”
He shook his head.
“We’ve lost control,” he said. “And this community is wounded.”