Listening to the Streets in Order to Make Them More Livable: Part III in a Series

Memorial shrine at Manchester and Vermont for Eddie Mitchell, 15, one of eight people shot across South L.A. on the Fourth of July. (photo: sahra)

This is the third (and long overdue) piece in a series re-examining the way we think about Livable Streets. The first two articles (here and here) detail the history of a wonderful young man named Fidel who ran with a crew just north of USC. His experience mirrors that of many of the teens I have met over the several years I have been volunteering in high schools around L.A. As such, it offers insight into how challenging it can be to promote a Livable Streets agenda in areas where streets are contested.

“As soon as we got out of school,” Fidel says, “we hit the corner and we see their truck. It was three guys. I was like, ‘Aaaah, fuck!’”

The guys “busted a U” and came up behind him, asking where he was “from.”

Not that they needed to.

“They clearly knew who I was,” he says.

A few days before, Fidel, himself a member of a smoking-turned-fighting crew, had been in a fistfight with a member of the other crew. These guys were looking to even the score.

But they weren’t planning on playing fair.

As they got out of the truck, he saw that one of them had a metal pipe and the other, a little Dodger bat. He immediately realized the pipe was probably the one they had used to split open his friend’s head at the last rumble.

The last one was packing something more serious.

“I have a gun. I have a gun — you want me to take it out?” the guy taunted Fidel.

“I told him, ‘Well, take it out! What the fuck you telling me [for]? Take it out!’” Fidel says excitedly.

As the guy moved to get his gun, another one stepped up, ready to whack Fidel in the head.

“Just crack me, already!” ran through his mind, he says. “I wanted to feel that.”

My eyebrows shoot up.

He explains that with the tension building and the adrenaline pumping, he just wanted something to happen.

Suddenly, cops pulled a car over right in front of them. As the officers got out to approach the driver of the stopped vehicle, they spotted Fidel and the others and immediately realized what was going on.

“What are you doing! What are you doing!” Fidel says the cops shouted before yelling at them to get out of there.

The members of the other crew disappeared pretty quickly. But the incident stayed with him.

“That day, I was like, ‘Damn!’” he shakes his head. “That day was the first day I thought, ‘I’m gonna go to the hospital today.’”

I first thought he regretted the encounter because of how badly it could have ended. Baseball practice had been cancelled and, against the advice of a friend, he had made the decision to leave his bat at school instead of taking it with him for protection to walk the few blocks home. He knew members of the other crew might be looking for him, but he reassured his friend that even if they showed up, “they wouldn’t do anything.”

But the possibility of getting hurt wasn’t exactly what had bothered him.

Instead, he says, he had worried about what he was going to tell his parents if he ended up in the hospital. They were unaware that he was running with a crew, and he didn’t want them to find out this way.

“I was really nervous,” he declares of his realization that the kids were armed. “But, I wasn’t scared of them. I was scared of my parents. I was scared of my mom. I was scared of putting her in that situation…” he trails off, shaking his head. “Oh, man…”

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It can be tempting to dismiss a situation like the one described above and say he got himself into that mess on his own. And, to a degree, Fidel himself would acknowledge the truth in that. Not every male child that grows up in a tough part of town joins a gang or a crew.

But, if you’ve read previous installations of Fidel’s story (part 1, part 2), you know that it is more complicated than a single bad decision on his part. You know that, while he most recently was part of a crew that still claims some territory just north of USC, he had been running with crews since elementary school. You also know that, despite his history, he is a really good person and got out of his last crew (see his story in his own words here), in great part, because of concerns about repercussions from his actions for his family.

He was also worried by how crews — often the equivalent of farm teams for gangs – were becoming more violent over time. He realized that if he had stayed with the crew, he would inevitably have become more violent himself.

“All I thought of was that I’m going to get angrier and angrier to the point that I’m going to want to go kill [members of the other crew]. I’m going to want to go look for them and do the same thing that they did to my friend. And then just kill them after that. Or something. ‘Cause when they told me about my friend getting stabbed seven times…I was shocked. But, at the same time I was thinking, like, ‘Fuck these fools! They did that to us!’”

“How can we let them do that to us and we’re just going to say [to our friends], ‘Oh, you got stabbed? My bad,’” he shakes his head in disgust at the thought of not avenging the severe injury of a friend.

Part of the reason he joined up with his crew in the first place was to help protect his friends from getting punked by gangsters. But because both the gangsters and crew members were showing up with weapons, some of his friends also began packing firearms. It doesn’t mean that they were looking to kill people – even the armed guys from the other crew that were ready to fight Fidel before the police showed up didn’t seem to have their hearts fully in it. They looked a little scared to hit him, Fidel thinks. They probably realized things would only escalate between their crews from there on out.

But the problem with picking a fight is that the fight-picker can’t be the one to walk away from it. And if they’ve got weapons, they’re more likely to use them when they feel pushed. So, even if Fidel wasn’t carrying a deadly weapon, he knew it was only a matter of time before somebody who was caused an incident where he got badly hurt, went to jail, or ended up dead.

He needed out.

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Memorial for Jostin Sosa Ordóñez, 17, shot several times at the 4100 block of S. Figueroa. (photo: sahra)

Why This Matters for the Livability of Streets

The problem with getting involved in a crew or a gang is that, once you are associated with one, walking away is tough. The enemies you made have long memories and everyone else is slow to see you as anything other than a cholo.

It impacts kids in ways they don’t expect. Namely, it makes their worlds so much smaller.

“You can’t go out comfortably,” Fidel explains. “If you go out and you dress like them, a guy that looks like you is gonna try to stop you and ask you, ‘Where you from?’ And, you might not know if he’s from a rival crew. And then, fuck, if you’re on a date or you’re with your family or you’re just walking…Or, you’re not even walking…Say you even just had trouble in your house and you left your house to go walk around and get your mind off that, someone else comes along and…”

You get the idea.

Basically, you can’t go anywhere without having to watch your back.

Even when you do leave the crew behind, as he did, you can’t readily escape your past. For Fidel, this means growing his hair a little longer and staying away from Trade Tech for college in order to avoid running into guys who may not have heard he was out of the crew.

For others, it means staying within a few-block radius of their homes and getting a ride if they need to go any farther. Particularly if they have identifying tattoos or are easily recognizable, they don’t want to chance making themselves easy targets by walking or biking.

That fear of being targeted even touches kids who live in these areas but do their best to stay away from that life. Racial tensions between gangs can sometimes discourage kids from associating with each other or venturing to parts of the neighborhood where members of their race might be unwelcome. Fears about getting jacked, recruited, or harassed may also keep kids from getting out and about. Or, taking cues from older brothers or cousins, kids may claim a particular affiliation and/or voluntarily start limiting their movement on their own. I have stopped being surprised at hearing ten-year old kids tell me they can’t go to this or that neighborhood or that they’ve never seen the Watts Towers despite living within spitting distance of them their entire lives.

Adults may also have a difficult time going about their business in areas with contested streets. They may feel relatively safe on streets they know well and where they feel known by the community, but be reluctant to walk or ride a bike along streets they are unfamiliar with. More recent immigrants can feel overwhelmed trying to negotiate complex neighborhood dynamics. This means that, instead of spending time in the areas where they live, they may do their shopping and socializing in other parts of town. Or, if they have access to a car, they will use that to drive a few blocks to run errands rather than exposing themselves to the risk of being targeted on their own streets.

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When both adults and youth feel that their own streets are not accessible or welcoming, it affects the ability of residents to invest in and build community. The streets are certainly not seen as places of recreation. The efforts of the East Side Riders, Los Ryderz de YO Watts, and Real Rydaz are beginning to change that in some areas, but it is a very slow process. The result is that programs designed to encourage kids to bike or walk to school or the building of infrastructure (i.e. bike lanes) are likely to fall significantly short of their potential impact if they don’t also engage community members on and factor in these other issues.

Although organizations such as Safe Routes to School might be aware of these issues (see their resource guide for working in low-income communities), factoring them into projects is a challenge. For one, projects like those funded through Safe Routes tend to focus on kids up through 8th grade. That leaves out the high school youth, who both need safe passage and are also the source of many of the safety problems.

Second, the data used to shape the design of an intervention in a community might be based on obesity rates, general crime rates, and traffic statistics (i.e. pedestrian collisions). Data detailing a community’s understanding of its own no-go hotspots is simply not readily accessible.

Youth that are victims of crime tend not to report it. They are often loathe to tell their parents for fear of having their movement even more restricted. And (to the best of my knowledge), even when crimes are reported, the data is not kept in a way that makes it easy to track incidents where youth are the victims of assault or theft. In areas heavily controlled by gangs and/or where the community has a poor relationship with the LAPD, reporting is similarly unlikely to happen unless the circumstances were extreme. In such cases where crimes are reported, the lack of residents’ trust in the LAPD may mean that the information provided about the crime offers little insight as to what actually happened or who was involved.

Any effort to make streets more livable must therefore engage a wide range of stakeholders from a community.

But that’s not easy. To do so, the intervening organization must build trust with and among community members by being present on a regular basis over a significant period of time. And that is just to get the conversations started. It requires an even greater commitment to sustain community participation in data-gathering and the implementation of changes.

Unfortunately, few of the agencies or non-profit efforts eligible to receive a Safe Routes or other large grant have the necessary combination of resources, time, cultural competency, or capacity to do the amount of door-knocking necessary to even start the process of bringing a community together regarding the livability of their streets. Smaller organizations well-grounded in the community might have excellent cultural competency but not the time or manpower (or grant eligibility) to reach a wider swath of the community.

Many organizations do their best by trying to work with existing community leaders, people Jamecca Marshall of the Advancement Project refers to as “gatekeepers.” The only problem with that sort of short-cut, she says, is that the “people who stand in for the community as ‘gatekeepers’ very often are very disconnected from and have little do with the reality of the community.”

Truly engaging a community on making it more livable “…is deeper than making [people] feel they have a voice,” Jamecca told me. “It’s about creating space for their voice in the first place.”

That means investing the time to determine what the barriers are to people’s participation and doing “intentional work” designed specifically to address those concerns. Anything less is not likely to be successful or sustainable.

In the next installment, I’ll profile the Safe Passages efforts of the Advancement Project around schools in Central Los Angeles and their newly launched 5-year program in the housing developments of Watts. In both areas, their goal has been to enhance the capacity of residents to engage each other and the public sector on issues of concern as well as the capacity of the public sector to respond to those concerns in appropriate and productive ways.