Harnessing Momentum to Write a New Chapter in the History of South L.A.

Shuntain Thomas of the Real Rydaz and Francois Bar of USC and RideSouthLA talk about the possibility of working together on a mapping effort of the area. photo: sahra

“Every day, I’m learning,” Shuntain Thomas, one of the core members of the Real Rydaz, tells me each time I talk to him.

Learning how to harness momentum, he means.

The Real Rydaz have enjoyed a lot of attention this year. They were one of the first bike clubs that I met up with when I began covering South L.A., they helped the mayor celebrate CicLAvia, and they star in a video produced by Ashton Kutcher’s Subculture Club.

Their visibility (and work with infrastructure advocate extraordinare, Joe Linton) has been helpful in pushing the city to finally make good on its long-standing plans to stripe bike lanes in South L.A.

Thomas has bigger plans than just bike lanes, however. He hopes that the momentum the Rydaz have built over the year can be channeled into positive and sustainable change for the area.

For the past several months, he’s been working to put together this Sunday’s South L.A. Peace, Love, Family Ride, & Community Fair, a riding tour of historic South L.A. and community event complete with health screenings, activities for kids, live music, and food and arts vendors. Although the ride begins in Exposition Park (as a way to reach out to those outside South L.A.), it will pass through and eventually end up at the event site — the Universal College of Beauty, Inc. at 86th and Vermont — an integral part of the business corridor along that section of Vermont.

Thomas has worked at the Beauty College for the last 5 years. It is a family-owned business that has been at that location since 1956 and is descended from the Henrietta Beauty School. Matriarch Hazel Williams opened the school in 1930 after she was denied entry to cosmetology schools because she was African-American.

When I was at the school the other day, it was bustling with activity. There was even a Swedish team of cosmetologists that had popped in looking for hand models (I was quickly dismissed as a candidate) and observing the techniques being taught there.

As Thomas knows too well, few of the businesses in the area can boast of that kind of good fortune. The area was hit hard by the civil unrest of 1992 and feels like it is still very much in transition. A few black and white flooring tiles in the parking lot adjacent to the College are all that remain of the Korean-owned furniture shop that once stood there. Just up the street is a vacant lot stretching two blocks, seemingly mocking the County Supervisor’s Constituent Office it sits across from. A swap meet building burned to the ground there during the riots and developer Eli Sasson has sat on the land for the past twenty years. Although the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) finally began eminent domain proceedings against Sasson in 2008 to get back control of the land, the proceedings were abandoned with the dissolution of the CRA.

Shocking no one, the plans for the commercial redevelopment of the lot into a supermarket, bank, drugstore, and mix of sit-down restaurants have once again stalled.

The sun sets on the vacant lot at 85th and Vermont, directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' Constituent Service Center. photo: sahra.

Part of the challenge in changing mindsets about South L.A. has to do with how much L.A. loves its anniversaries. It seems that every few years in April, we check back in with South L.A. to lament how little investment there has been in the area since the riots and how few promises have been met. And then we forget about it until the next episode of violence erupts or the next anniversary rolls around.

Thomas is one of those that is tired of that narrative. He hopes that by holding an event that showcases the business corridor, people from other parts of the city will see beyond the history that has such a hold on the image of South L.A. Moreover, he hopes that people from within the community will take away a sense of pride in the area, too.

He recognizes it isn’t an easy task on either count. The question I’m most frequently asked when I say I cover South L.A. is whether I’m afraid of getting shot. Meanwhile, local residents are not always well-equipped or educated in how to do outreach to outsiders. While talking with business owners about closing the street for the July 1 event, for example, Thomas found many were initially reluctant. They didn’t see the value of it until the conversation turned to longer-term goals for the area.

“It’s a process,” he sighed.

But he is undaunted. This kind of thing, he says of the diverse group he hopes to lead on the bike tour with the Rydaz on Sunday, “should have happened a long time ago.”

“People need to know that you can ride through this neighborhood and not be fearful,” he said of residents and non-residents alike. “We want to drive people to just come out…[and see South L.A.] can be a place of recreation.”

We also need to ask ourselves, he said, “What are we going to do with all this opportunity?”

The festivities run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 86th and Vermont. If you’d like to join the bike ride, registration begins at Exposition Park at 8:30 a.m. The ride will start at 10:15 a.m. For more event information, please check out the facebook event page here.