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COVER STORY : THE MYTH OF South-Central : More a Stereotype Than a Place, It Is Defined By Ethnicity and Negative Media Images Rather Than Street Boundaries.

January 03, 1993|LUCILLE RENWICK

At the opening of a minority AIDS hospice, City Councilman Nate Holden pointedly informed the audience that the facility on Adams Boulevard near Western Avenue was not in South-Central Los Angeles.

Minutes later, state Sen. Diane Watson contradicted Holden, emphatically stating that the center was in South-Central.

Their disagreement illustrates the ongoing debate about South-Central: Where is it? What is it? Should it be shunned or embraced?

The answers transcend geography.

South-Central has become as much a stereotype as a place, defined more by ethnicity and negative media images than street boundaries. Last year's civil disturbances affected many areas, but it was South-Central that was thrust into the national consciousness, bolstering impressions of a community embroiled in chaos as Watts was after 1965.

"South-Central has come to mean inner city, period. And inner city means wherever there's black folks and brown folks, but black folks in particular," said Franklin Gilliam, a UCLA political science professor.

The typecasting of South-Central as an area mired in crime, poverty and violence has taken its toll on the more than 500,000 African-Americans and Latinos who live there. Some say it has heightened feelings of despair. Others complain it has created divisions between those who accept South-Central despite the image and those who want to distance themselves from that image.

Yet there are people who have emerged with newfound pride in their community. Younger generations embrace the defiant spirit of rap songs that celebrate the 'hood as a place where only the strong survive. Longtime residents push to expose the flip side of South-Central where middle-class families, model students and community activists contradict the stereotype.

"People think it's the Third World here, that crime and drugs are only here and nowhere else, but that's not true," said Cristina Diaz, a 22-year resident of South-Central and a secretary at the Nativity Catholic Church. "South-Central is like everyplace else: It's not all bad."

James Hall, owner of Soul Brothers Kitchen on Florence Avenue since 1969, considers South-Central home, even though he now lives in Inglewood.

"In this whole world, nowhere is paradise," Hall said. "I'm proud of South-Central because there are positive-thinking people that I know here."

However, South-Central certainly faces more than its share of social ills. About 29% of the residents who are 25 or older have less than a ninth-grade education, compared to 18% citywide, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

According to the latest statistics, about 43% of the reported homicides and 30% of robberies in Los Angeles in the first four months of 1992 were from police bureaus that cover South-Central. Census figures also report 33% of South-Central households are below the national poverty level and the median household income is $18,991 compared to $30,925 in Los Angeles, overall.

But people who live and work in the area contend that South-Central's problems have been exaggerated by news reports, films and rap music that highlight the violence.

Daisy Peters, a member of the 92nd Street Better Home and Improvement Club and a resident of South-Central for 42 years, said the community has more well-kept homes occupied by middle- and working-class families than broken-down buildings and garbage-strewn streets.

Hall found this same sense of community in 1963 when he moved to South-Central from Northern California. Then, the area was known as the "Negro community" or the "Central area." Two years later, it became Watts.

"After the '65 riots everything black was simply Watts. That was the general term," Hall said.

The black community objected to being called Watts and consequently was tagged as the "curfew area," then "the minority community" and "the 77th police area" in the late '60s and '70s, according to Jesse Brewer, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. By the '80s, "South-Central" came into vogue.

The origin of the name, however, is a mystery.

Some people say South-Central developed because of the two police bureaus--South and Central--that cover the area. Brewer, who recently retired as an assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, says it did not. Senior planner Jim Anderson of the city's planning department believes the term came from city planning maps drawn up in the early '60s that marked off sections of the city.

Most people interviewed say the media made it up.

"This was all designated by the media. We never called it any of that," said Brewer. "We had our own neighborhoods that we identified with and called by name." A few of them were Avalon Gardens, Green Meadows and Athens Park.

After last spring's civil unrest, South-Central's boundaries became a blur, extending anywhere African-Americans and Latinos lived that was south of the Santa Monica Freeway. The riots prompted researchers, academics and agencies to try to pinpoint South-Central.

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