While heading to South L.A. for the United Riders of South L.A.‘s Tour de Watts this past Saturday, I was reminded of a guest lecture I gave in a USC journalism class a few weeks ago.
For an hour and a half, I talked about how fortunate I felt to be covering South L.A. and how wonderful and welcoming the people there were. We talked about the problems, of course, and about the importance of taking a nuanced approach to get behind the typical perceptions of the area and its inhabitants. But, I thought I had done a pretty good job of painting a portrait of the South L.A. I know: the one that varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood; the one filled with good people whose ability to be good neighbors to one another is sometimes constrained by challenging circumstances; and the one that isn’t always easy to wrap your arms around but which rewards you tenfold for the effort.
Then, I got their evaluations.
Most had enjoyed the talk immensely and many even found themselves inspired to think about using a bicycle to get to know a community (huzzah!). But, the majority seemed to be incorrigibly wedded to the idea that South L.A. was a seedy and unsafe place.
Not because they’re terrible people, or racist, or even classist — I don’t believe they are. Simply put, that’s just how powerful the stereotypes surrounding South L.A. are.
What does it take to take people’s minds? I wondered as I pedaled down Avalon.
Sometimes I feel like I can write about how great the people of South L.A. are til I am blue in the face and it won’t make a bit of difference.
Part of the reason, I would guess, is that I still have to write about the problems I see there.
Crime, gang-activity, blight, intense poverty…those things are real. And, they do negatively affect the population.
In fact, just as I was rushing to meet up with the riders at the WLCAC, I ran into a young man I knew on the corner of Century at Ted Watkins park. His fixie had gotten a flat, he said, and he was walking to get his van so he could pick up the bike, which he had left at the park with friends.
What he was telling me, essentially, was that, even though he was a strong, grown man, walking a bicycle a few blocks down the street by himself on a sunny Saturday morning would serve as an invitation for people to take it from him and possibly hurt him in the process.
It’s a story I’ve heard a million times. The unfortunate reality for people in Watts and other parts of South L.A. is that the streets are not all that secure for pedestrians. Or for young cyclists, for that matter, if they are out riding on their own.
It is also a story I don’t enjoy telling because it seems to confirm the negative stereotypes of the area.
And, while it does confirm them to some extent, there is a lot more to the story. Read more…