Thursday, October 23, 2003

In a story that just ran on SLATE (here's the URL JILL LEOVY of the LA TIMES makes an interesting observation. Actually, she makes many interesting observations but I'll address only this one. I'll get to the others at another time. She talks about covering crime in SOUTH CENTRAL LA and about the neighborhoods she visits and drives through. And she says this:

"It's hard to convey the tranquility and normalcy of these neighborhoods -- the skateborading kids, the Pizza Huts, the garage sales -- while still presenting a truthful picture of their crime problems. I fact, what many people in Los Angeles think of as this city's 'bad neighborhoods' are in many way indistinguishable from those with milder reputations. They brim with aspiration and middle-class comfort, even as they distill every kind of despair."

I don't know how long LEOVY has been going into these neighborhoods or if she's made this observation before, but it reminded me of the drive with my two DANISH visitors, MADS and KLAUS. I'd been driving them through SOUTH CENTRAL and then we made our way to NORTHEAST, avoiding the freeways to give them a taste of what LA was like at the street level.

We stopped in the hills above GLASSELL PARK where we had a view of a hazy downtown. It was dusk and there was something of a purple sky and LA was trying to do it's best to remind the two DANES that it was the inspiration for BLADE RUNNER. Lights in the houses began winking on, and people were coming home and parking their RANGER pickups and MITSUBISHI MONTEROS and MADS finally asked "Is this the bad neighborhood now, Wally?"

I told him we'd been driving through "bad" neighborhoods all day. Both of them sort of gave me the fish eye like I was trying to pull something over on them. They were dubious. They mentioned things like the houses being in decent shape and the yards well kept and a lot of the cars on the street were new and there were BIG WHEELS in those yards, and some swing sets and PATIO CLASSIC barbecue grilles and all the rest of the stuff we take for granted, even in "bad" beighbohoods. But to a EURO these are not the indicators of poverty or despair. It's what they wish they had. MADS told me that he's 31 and makes a good living with the DANISH BROADCASTING COMPANY but he can't afford to buy a car. They have a 300% luxury tax on cars. So a $14,000 COROLLA in the US is something like $42,000 in DENMARK. When I indicated to him that in the US even a guy with a steady job at MACDONALD'S can probably get a good used car for under $10,000 he said something to the effect that it made him feel poor and underprivileged.

They were still giving me the dubious look so I took them over to the corner of YORK BOULEVARD and ALDAMA. And I indicated that in a five block radius, I could point out half a dozen murder locations and countless assaults and robberies. In a five minute drive I could show him over a dozen murder sites that I knew of. There were certainly more that I just never researched. I drove them past a house owned by a legendary MEXICAN MAFIA dynasty that was three generations deep. The house was midly neglected but hardly any different from the other houses on the street. And yeah, there we kids on bikes and grandmas on the porches and people socializing and there wasn't a stumble-bum wino or addled heroin addict in sight and there weren't feral dogs eating corpses or women selling their babies to buy food.

If what we have in these underprivileged neighborhoods is poverty, it's uniquely AMERICAN poverty. Poverty unrecognizable as such anywhere else in the world. This is not the hovel poverty of HAITI or the living in a shack made of cut up oil cans of MOGADISHU or even the packed tenements of NEW YORK at the turn of the century. This is the poverty of driving a car a few years older than you'd ideally like to have. Or the poverty of owning only one pair of NIKES as opposed to a pair for each day of the week or only having one or two games for the GAMEBOY instead of a whole drawer full.

In CODY SCOTT'S famous book MONSTER, he states that he grew up on a nice street with trees lining the sidewalks and clean, unbroken pavement and that his mother's flower garden was the envy of the neighborhood and that she always had the money to buy him nice clothes and the expensive cologne that he liked to wear to impress the females. As he admits, it really wasn't the lack of any material possessions that drove him to join a gang and kill. In a candid passage, he says that gang banging was exciting. It was a rush.

I remember once interviewing the family of a gang murder victim. They lived in a small but well maintained rental house. Their son was loosely affiliated with a gang and had been killed when he flashed a gang sign at rivals. The family had had some tough times. The father couldn't find work, the mom had never worked and the other kids were too small to work. But in the living room they had a monster of a big screen TV. And there was a new iMAC hooked up to a BROTHER printer and they had web access and cable. They owned two vehicles -- an 8-passenger van for family trips and a smaller sedan to commute to work. When the dad could get work, that is. In a roundabout way during the course of the interview, I steered them to a question about poverty and they believe themselves to be poor and lacking many advantages. And I'm convinced that they really do believe that they're poor. But they're poor only in relation to some ideal they see on TV. To most of the industrialized world they're doing okay. To most of the rest of the world, they're filthy rich and overprivileged.

Maybe it's that phenomenon of walking into a strange house and noticing the smell that the residents have long gotten used to. To MADS and KLAUS, even the worst of our hoods seem fairly benign and frankly far better than they had been led to believe. And maybe that's why it took them no time flat to realize this and it's taken LEOVY quite a bit longer.

As I've said before, poverty is not necessarily at the root of gang crime in LA and in the US. At least it's not the kind of soul-grinding poverty the rest of the world knows all too well.

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