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In South L.A., a population shift

Latinos outnumber blacks 2 to 1. But poverty remains a constant.

September 14, 2008|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

The small, wood-frame house in the shadow of the Watts Towers was no home buyer's dream. But back in 2004, Victor Agustiniano and his wife, Remedios, were in a frenzy to become homeowners. And despite warnings about neighborhood crime, they snapped up the two-bedroom house with the big yard for less than $300,000.

Agustiniano, a 35-year-old home improvement store worker, was familiar with South Los Angeles. In the early 1990s, he dropped out of high school and made a living as a street vendor there, selling corn on the cob smothered in mayonnaise and cheese.

During the 1992 riots, he and his wife -- childhood sweethearts from Mexico -- hunkered down in their apartment near Vermont Avenue and watched the unrest on television.

Today, the family lives in a three-bedroom addition Agustiniano built behind the small house, which is now a rental property.

"This is my home," he said with pride. "This is where I live, and I have had no problems here."

Agustiniano and his wife are stakeholders in today's South Los Angeles and are emblematic of a major trend in the area: a substantial demographic shift. In 1990, Latinos and African Americans each comprised 47% of the area's population; today Latinos outnumber blacks 2 to 1.

But that ethnic transformation is one of the few dramatic changes in an area that for decades has known one constant: poverty. According to a newly released report by UCLA's School of Public Affairs, almost one-third of the area's residents have been living below the poverty line since 1990.

"South L.A. has been a neglected part of the city," said Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the School of Public Affairs. "There have been efforts to rebuild, but those efforts haven't been as successful. And that's because we have not developed a strategy for dealing with the long-term and persistent effects of poverty."

The UCLA report points out that the area is a place of stark contrasts, with solid middle- and upper-class pockets -- View Park and Baldwin Hills -- on the west and communities that lag behind nearly every measure of prosperity farther east. It's most often defined as an area of immense need.

A year after the 1992 riots, UCLA released a lengthy report describing the unrest as a "predictable outcome" of a festering crisis in a region where joblessness, hopelessness and a crippling lack of skills and education existed side by side with wealth, privilege and opportunity.

UCLA researchers returned to the area this year to gather data for the new report, titled "The State of South L.A.." The study sought to define 60 square miles -- bounded by the 10 Freeway, La Cienega Boulevard, the 105 Freeway and Alameda Street -- with about 885,000 people, close to 10% of the county's population. Among the researchers' findings:

In 1990, 47% of South L.A. residents were Latino and another 47% were African American. By 2006, the mix had changed to 62% Latino and 31% black, 3% white, 2% Asian/ Pacific Islander and 2% other. About 40% of the people living in South L.A. are foreign-born.

The study found that although Latinos had strong numbers throughout the county, blacks were three times more likely to live in South L.A. -- an area of cultural and political strength for African Americans.

About 30% of South L.A.'s residents live in poverty, about the same proportion as in 1990 and about twice the rate recorded in the county overall.

In South L.A., fewer residents have skills, high school diplomas and college degrees than in other parts of the county. Unemployment is higher and workers earn less.

In the poorer sections of South L.A., there are fewer homeowners than the county average and there's a slightly higher default and foreclosure rate. (Foreclosures are much higher in the Antelope Valley.)

Although property crime rates in South L.A. (27 offenses per 1,000) were roughly equal to the county rate, violent crime was twice as high. More than one-third of the victims of violent crimes were 18 to 29; 16% were under 18.

Over the years, a negative perception of the area has been fueled by its reputation for occasional unrest, urban decline, crime, unemployment and welfare dependency.

In 2003, city officials sought to lesson the negative impact by changing the name of South-Central Los Angeles, but that alteration may have contributed to a loss of a historical identity, the 2008 report suggests.

More harmful has been the persistent lack of resources, such as neighborhood jobs.

"That means it's harder for people to find jobs near their homes," said Paul Ong, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, who was a major contributor to both the 1993 and 2008 reports.

"They have to travel further to find work than people in other urban areas, and there's a higher cost for transportation and insurance. They face the challenges of having to look for a job, hold it and then balance the work with other family obligations."

Ong said the first study focused more on defining some of the root causes for the 1992 unrest.

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