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The State

Clinging to Dream's Frayed Edges

A new generation of blacks is leaving L.A., seeking to preserve a middle-class life in places like Riverside.

September 11, 2004|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

When Brinson and Rose Kelly headed west from Mississippi in the 1970s, Los Angeles offered a poor black man a decent wage making cars, airplanes and steel. The Kellys settled, like so many thousands before them, in the streets around Central Avenue.

Some 15 years later, they bought a three-bedroom home on 112th Street in a quiet enclave between Imperial Highway and the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Brinson Kelly, who as a boy picked cotton for $2 a day, owned a demolition and hauling business that was taking off. And while he never learned much reading and writing in Mississippi, in Los Angeles he sent three of his four children to college.

The Kellys were a confirmation of the American dream.

Until they realized one day that the dream had packed up and gone elsewhere.

The neighborhood got worse, not better. Frustrated at the discarded furniture, the potholes and the police searchlights, the Kellys last year moved a few miles east and south, across the Orange County line, to a ranch home on a cul-de-sac in Buena Park.

"I never had a problem living in South-Central. It's just the city doesn't take care of the streets like they're supposed to," said Rose Kelly, 48. "If I call somebody out here [in Buena Park] about something, all I have to do is call them one time, and they're going to come out and see about it."

Their eldest daughter, DeShawn Kelly-Smith, 31, went farther. After looking for an affordable home in all the places where the middle class used to move, she and her husband, Danny Smith, who together make about $80,000 a year, wound up in Riverside.

California, which for decades was a top attractor of blacks from the South, is now one of the top sending states of a reverse migration -- back to the South and to cities like Las Vegas.

The black exodus from the state as a whole has been well documented. Less observed, however, has been the shift within Southern California as blacks from the city flee to the fringes in an effort to hang onto the gains their parents earned.

Los Angeles County's black population declined about 6% from 1990 to 2000, while the black population rose by 53% in Riverside County, and by 34% in San Bernardino County, according to census figures.

The bulk of Los Angeles' exodus came from Compton, where the black population dropped 24%; Pasadena, with a 20% decline; and the city of Los Angeles, with a 13% decline. On the northern edge of Los Angeles County, meanwhile, Palmdale's black population more than tripled while the black population in Lancaster more than doubled.

Many of those moving out of the city may be as pleased to flee to the suburbs as were many white city dwellers in past decades. But Kelly-Smith is not one of them.

"I would have taken a house in the 'hood, without a question, because I feel like it never did anything to me," she said. "If anything, it made me a stronger person."


The map of Kelly-Smith's search for a home looks like a page torn from an outdated atlas of Southern California's blue-collar geography: "Torrance, Norwalk, Downey, Bellflower, Lakewood -- it was difficult," she said.

We looked at La Puente, Pomona every day, three or four houses, and just nothing panning out."

Where three decades ago a family earning less than the median income could afford a median-priced house, in neighborhood after neighborhood Kelly-Smith and her husband were unable to find a suitable quarter-million-dollar house.

"The middle class," Kelly-Smith said with a sigh, "is disappearing every day. I think it's getting to the point where you are going to be rich or you're going to be poor. Either-or."

The move away from the central city brings more affordable housing and safer streets, but imposes costs of its own. Kelly-Smith, who works in the Inglewood school district, and Smith, a security officer for Boeing in El Segundo, spend more time in their cars every day than with each other.

This summer, Kelly-Smith attended evening classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Cal State Dominguez Hills as she worked to earn a teaching credential and a master's degree in mathematics.

There's no time to drive back to Riverside after work, so she naps in her SUV until classes begin. She gets home about 10 p.m.

"I set my clock for 5, but I don't usually get out of bed until 5:45," she said. "And it's brush your teeth, comb your hair and out the door. Six o'clock, no later than 6:15, or I can hang it up."

Unable to afford part-time day care, Kelly-Smith left her 9-year-old daughter, Rose, with the elder Rose Kelly in Buena Park for most of the summer school break. Rose attends school in Inglewood, where her mother works.

"My mom is still not pleased with that," Kelly-Smith said. "I tell her, households these days, they need two incomes."

When Inglewood schools are in session, Rose dozes in the passenger seat as her mother negotiates the Pomona Freeway to the San Gabriel River Freeway to the Century Freeway into Inglewood, dropping her at school. Barring incidents, the trip takes about an hour and a half.

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