Breaking the Monolith: Culture Defines South Central. Geography Limits It.

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Student journalists at the Los Angeles Collegian, the student voice of Los Angeles City College since 1929, have been hard at work this summer developing a special package of in-depth reporting with support from Cal Humanities. We are honored to present their work here.

More than 800,000 people live in South Los Angeles. They represent a Black monolith, and they want to break it.

South Central Los Angeles is not just an invisible part of the city that some avoid at all costs. It is not just a place surrounded by stigma created by outsiders.

Historic South Central Los Angeles is a 2.55-square-mile region resembling a puzzle piece. The area is flanked to the north by downtown Los Angeles, as Washington Boulevard marks the invisible border between the two, and by Vernon Avenue to the south, the Harbor Freeway to the west and historic Central Avenue to the east.

Tom’s Market, a brown brick building with a green roof, stands one-story high steps away from the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. The building is located at the epicenter of the infamous 1992 unrest caused by the verdict in the Rodney King trial.

It sits within the imaginary borders of the “cultural” South Central, but it is outside of the 2.55 miles that define historic South Central geographically. The Baldwin Hill, Crenshaw and Leimert neighborhoods are also located outside of that perimeter.

The city council changed the name of South Central to South Los Angeles in 2003, according to a KCET report. The perception of South Los Angeles as a haven for something “less” crossed the ocean.

The British press did not make the distinction between the historical and geographical South L.A. In an article published by the U.K.’s Daily Mail in September 2016 titled “(Almost) Straight Out of Compton,” reporter Ruth Styles wrote about the area where Meghan Markle’s mother lived.

“Plagued by crime and riddled with street gangs, the troubled Los Angeles neighborhood that Doria Ragland, 60, calls home couldn’t be more different to London’s leafy Kensington,” Styles wrote. Markle’s mother lived in the Crenshaw neighborhood of View Park, where houses list from $800,000 to $2 million. The homes are mainly midcentury gems with oddly shaped swimming pools and sweeping views of the downtown skyline. The majority of the homeowners there are Black.

Race Trumps Location, Geography

Crenshaw Boulevard stretches 23 miles long. Cars travel the boulevard from Mid-Wilshire near the affluent Hancock Park area to the north through Central Los Angeles. It passes the Crenshaw district that includes View Park and Windsor Hills ending in the affluent Rolling Hills area in Palos Verdes. Crenshaw is a boulevard crossing a cluster of neighborhoods, not a city.  

In other words, most anywhere there are African Americans east of the Interstate 405 is regarded as “South Los Angeles” culturally and often with a derogatory connotation. 

Compton, Inglewood and Long Beach all border cities with similar demographics and similar stories. Geographically, they are not South Central. Some people in these places live mundane, ordinary lives. Others have interesting and even extraordinary lives that have nothing to do with the popularized imagery of movies, music or even real life events like the 1992 unrest. Travis Lacy is a writer and doctoral candidate of African American music and culture. 

“South Los Angeles is not unlike many other L.A. neighborhoods,” Lacy said. “There are multiple types of people … that hold all sorts of employment positions from simple retail positions to management, hospital staff, nurses.”

South L.A. properties with mortgages account for 76 percent of homes. The median value of a home with a mortgage there is $467,350, according to, an Internet real estate site. Lacy says South Los Angeles is working class, and it is not so different from other L.A. neighborhoods. 

“It has its collection of well-known people as well, Ray Charles, lived not too far from here, in the Baldwin Hills-View Park area,” he said. “Tina Turner and her husband [Ike Turner], Stevie Wonder had a house up there too … it burned in a fire.”    

However, there is crime, and there are street gangs, illicit drugs and violence. 

African Americans are the image of  “who” lives in South Central Los Angeles, but they make up a mere 10.1 percent of the population of the historic core South Central Los Angeles, according to the 2000 U.S. census. Latinos are at the top with 87.2 percent. 

South Central Los Angeles has never been “ghetto,” by definition. The “Black Beverly Hills” as it has been called in the past, Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw District along with Leimert Park are the only areas in the city that are predominately African American. Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights are the most affluent African American areas on the West Coast. However, African Americans’ place in South L.A. continues to disappear. 

James W. Johnson has been a resident of South Los Angeles for almost seven decades. He and his family migrated to South Los Angeles from a small town in Texas in 1955.   

“That’s the biggest problem the Black community is having right now, getting [their] parents’ leftovers, and selling them, ” Johnson said. “I had a buddy of mine, he sold his [grandma’s house], a duplex. He was living in one of ?em rent-free for years. For years, but his grandmother passed away. He sold the house and moved to Moreno Valley.” 

History and Culture Live in South L.A.

The Crenshaw District became home for many Japanese families after race-based housing covenants were ruled unconstitutional and unenforceable. Not illegal, just unenforceable. 

Pre-WWII South Central Los Angeles, very much like the farther eastern neighborhood of Boyle Heights was diverse. Blacks, Japanese, Italians, Mexicans, Chinese and Jews all lived together, as they were not allowed to live in the whites-only areas of the city.

Lacy grew up in South Los Angeles and in the unincorporated area called Lennox, south of Inglewood near LAX. Lacy, his wife and baby daughter moved into their 1922 Spanish revival bungalow in South Los Angeles near the Los Angeles and Inglewood border in 2005. Their purchase is located one mile away from the 1992 Watts Rebellion epicenter. 

He says his neighborhood is “pretty quiet” and most of his neighbors are elderly.

“The neighborhood does not fit into what you might normally hear about in South Los Angeles, [as] far as drugs and violence or anything like that. It’s been pretty quiet,” Lacy said. “[The elder neighbors], they moved in here before the 1966 restrictive covenants were removed and have been here ever since.” 

South L.A. is home to more than 140 architecturally and historically important places, like the 80-year-old Vision Theatre in Leimert Park. The Spanish style art deco movie palace was once operated by Fox West Coast Theaters, according to The Los Angeles Coliseum, site of the 1932 and 1984 Olympics, the Watts Towers—a group of 17 interconnected structures built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia over a 30-year period, and the 1930s planned community of Baldwin Hills Village are all national historic landmarks. 

Christian Brake is a 16-year-old high school student studying software coding. He says people are surprised by the fact that emblematic institutions are located within the South Los Angeles area borders. 

“There is the Natural History Museum and really good universities like USC here,” he said as he swiveled in his gaming chair and commented on his neighbors. “They can be rough, I grew up with some of them, and some of them are nice. Some can be unsafe too.” 

The people of South Los Angeles are thought to be less than, and not worth caring about. It is emblematic of systemic marginalization. Politicians often run on platforms of being tough on crime, which usually means a heavy-handed approach where everyone is guilty and no one feels safe. 

Beneath the Mediterranean climate however, there is also abandonment of good neighborhood policies. There is a lack of ground level interest in the people and their needs by local policy makers. 

It is a disservice to just paint all of South Los Angeles and its inhabitants as bad people in a bad area.

Bloods and Crips live in parts of these areas. So do anime nerds, doctoral candidates, teachers, students, celebrities, dentists and lawyers. There are families who struggle and families who are thriving. 

As Snoop Dogg says “you ain’t up on thangs” if you believe everyone in South Los Angeles is just someone to be avoided. They are not pillars of hopelessness, nor decay. 

California Humanities awarded $150,000 in fellowship grants to 10 community colleges in California to support projects by emerging student journalists. Projects reflect the perspective of journalists and the “context and inquiry” of the humanities, as students develop media literacy and practice public engagement.

Students also receive support, feedback and advanced training in workshops organized by Cal Humanities. Participants are selected through a competitive process and come from L.A. City College, San Diego City College, San Francisco City College, Fullerton College, San Bernardino and other community colleges across California.

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