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Those Who Stayed : Feeling Right at Home in South-Central L.A. : They Have a Commitment to Their Inner-City Neighborhoods

November 15, 1987|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

South-Central Los Angeles is an area where some police precincts have three times the number of homicide investigators as other districts in the city, yet many residents fear to venture out alone after dark, and most stores and shops close promptly at 6 p.m.

In its 43 square miles, 85 people have been killed this year in gang-related violence, and police estimate more than half the victims were innocent bystanders.

It is an area where family income is low, and the dropout rate (at Locke, Jordan and Manual Arts high schools) the highest in the city; where many homes, even in pockets of relative affluence, have barred windows and multilocked doors.

Yet there are those who stay in these neighborhoods, making a commitment to the inner city when their economic circumstances otherwise would allow them to leave.

They appear to be the exceptions to recent claims by activists and scholars that middle- and working-class blacks are leaving the inner city in large numbers, depriving the remaining population of positive role models.

Want to Contribute to Community

These homeowners remain, they say, because they love their neighborhoods and want to contribute to the community. Most concede it is harder for families with children to stay in an area where street gangs promise strength and glory in numbers and drugs are routinely sold on many street corners. Nevertheless, residents such as Sandra Scranton have chosen to stay in South-Central Los Angeles and raise their families there, though Scranton sends her daughter, Kiko, 16, to Catholic school in Playa del Rey.

Scranton, 42, runs a nursery school in Compton for 51 students and will soon open a temporary child-care service at the Kenneth Hahn shopping plaza in Willowbrook. She also owns four houses in South-Central Los Angeles in addition to the four-bedroom, two-story Willowbrook residence where she lives with her daughter.

The residence is one of 33 large, well-maintained houses just a few blocks south of Watts between 122nd and 124th streets east of the Martin Luther King Medical Center. The houses were moved to the spot by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee and sold to residents.

When Scranton bought the home six years ago, she had lived in Watts or South-Central Los Angeles almost all her life.

Sitting in her family room one evening recently, near a portrait of Malcolm X and a personal computer, Scranton said she purchased the home because her parents stressed putting things back into the community.

"I feel that we need role models," she said. "Otherwise everyone will just move out. When I moved here the kids in the neighborhood asked me 'Why didn't you move to Beverly Hills?' I said some good people have to stay."

A recent study indicates that many working- and middle-class blacks are ignoring that admonition. Based on U.S. Census data, the study by James H. Johnson, an associate professor of geography at UCLA, concludes that blacks are leaving Los Angeles in increasing numbers and are moving out of the state or to other metropolitan areas such as Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties.

Johnson called the pattern of increasing departures "black flight" and said that a new Los Angeles economy may be responsible.

"Los Angeles has shifted from a regional center of services and manufacturing to an international center of retail trade and other economic activity," he said. Some people who cannot find work ". . . are having to vote with their feet, if you will, in response to the changes."

The migration from the inner city disturbs some observers who argue that black middle- and working-class families should stay in the neighborhoods of their origin and provide examples.

That thinking rankles others, who argue that even a mass infusion of professionals into the inner city wouldn't do much good without other types of help.

Lorn Foster, a Claremont resident who teaches government at Pomona College but grew up in Los Angeles, said he understands the frustration of the inner-city black community when potential leaders move to the suburbs, but that he thinks it's unfair to ask blacks to move back home.

"People often ask me, 'Why don't you move back to Los Angeles?' I find I'm sort of irritated by that comment," he said. "No one asked middle-class Jews to move back to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles in 1950 or the middle-class Irish to move back to Charlestown or South Boston."

Foster said it's unfortunate that middle-class and professional blacks are leaving poor neighborhoods, but he thinks part of the insistence for blacks to return to the inner city is prompted by white guilt.

"I think what we're seeing is whites saying to middle-class and black professionals that somehow you should do more to make your community a better place," he said.

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