by Bob Sparrow
As you regular readers know, I love to travel, but I can’t hike in places like the Andes or the Himalayans every year. Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit of cabin fever (You know how this harsh California weather can keep you housebound all winter), and perhaps a bit ‘blog-challenged’, so I started looking for someplace to go, someplace local, someplace neither you nor I have been before.
I pulled out my map as I recalled some of my experiences from previous ‘local’ excursions, i.e. being thrown off the beach at Nixon’s Western White House, being freaked out by a paranormal experience on the Queen Mary and being ripped off by a phony fortune teller at Venice Beach, to name a few. OK, maybe they weren’t all great experiences, but they were experiences and they were local! Now I was looking for someplace really ‘different’, someplace ‘locally foreign’, if there is such a thing. Then I saw it, starring up at me from my map . . . South Central Los Angeles. No, I wasn’t back at the local Yardhouse being over-served on foreign beer! I thought, why not do a trip into the toughest part of LA, it could be a great experience . . . or you could never hear from me again; either way, it’s an adventure.
Depending on the kind of adventure I was looking for, I could either drive there during the day, or wait until the evening. I thought I wouldn’t get the full flavor unless I went in at night, but I also was really interested in surviving the experience. I’m sure if I left it up to you readers, you’d have me go late a night with $100 bills hanging out of my pockets. So I planned to leave Saturday morning.
I wanted to hit as many of the famous, or infamous ‘landmarks’ as I could, you know, the places where I was sure to find placards reading, ‘Kodak Moment’, signifying great photo opportunities. I actually called some places I found on-line that offered tours of the area, but none of them responded to email or phone inquiries. In fact, truth be told, none of them looked like they were still in business – not a good sign.
My ‘South Central’ map indicated a number of ‘must see’ locations: the site of the Watts Riots (1965), the neighborhoods where crack cocaine became an epidemic (1980s), sites of the Rodney King beating (1991) and where the riots broke out with the subsequent reading of the verdict of the officers involved in the beating (1992), and of course the hangout for the notorious rival gangs, the Crips (late ‘60s) and the Bloods (early ‘70s).
At this point I was beginning to wonder if Disneyland might have been a better choice – I know it would have been a safer one, but undaunted, I plotted my route through South Central on my map and, after checking to make sure my insurance (both car and life) was current, I put on some Snoop Dog and motored north to South Central.
It was an unusually warm winter day in southern California and I could see a hazy outline of the downtown Los Angeles skyline in the distance as I exited the freeway and entered ‘the hood’. I noticed that most of the shops, which were liquor stores and check cashing places, had bars on their windows (we don’t see a lot of that in Orange County); I noticed a good number of street people wheeling all of their earthly belongings in a grocery cart. Along the sidewalks I saw lots of clothes hanging from rope lines and didn’t know if these were items being sold or laundry being dried. As I traveled north on Vernon Avenue there were a number of churches, none more magnificent looking than the Church of Scientology, which looked like it was dropped in from a Beverly Hills neighborhood. I wondered as I drove by if that was Tom Cruise out in front waving people into the building. I drove by some old major crack houses (No, I didn’t stop, I’ve been clean for four days!) and then passed the corner of Florence and Normandie, which was the site of the Rodney King verdict riots. Next on my left was Manual Arts High School; it was built in 1910 and was only Los Angeles’ third high school at the time. There was a high chainlink fence around it – not sure if they were keeping people in or out. I turned on Martin Luther King Boulevard and drove past the Los Angeles Coliseum adjacent to the incongruous location of the private institution of the University of Southern California. Instead of having ‘Fight On’ as their slogan, it seems like it should be ‘Drive On’ or perhaps ‘Drive By’. I then headed south on South Central Avenue and drove by the old Black Panthers Headquarters, it didn’t look like any meetings were in session, so I didn’t stop. After several miles of graffiti-filled buildings and walls, I began to work my way over to Avalon and 116th Street which is where the Watts Riots started in 1965, causing 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. As I headed back to the freeway on my way out of the hood, I drove by the iconic Watts Towers (right).
The whole trip took me about three hours and I traveled a total of about 90 miles and never saw another white person the entire trip – the demographic is made up almost exclusively of Hispanics and Blacks, while Whites and Asians make up about 1% each.
OK, to be honest, it really didn’t compare to getting away on a mountain trail with pine-scented air, but it was really interesting to take a deeper dive into the history of South Central Los Angeles and to actually cruise the streets. Unfortunately, given recent events, ‘South Central’ seems to be a clarion for the failure on all sides of race relations.
Yeah, maybe Disneyland next time.