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The 'hood as a tourist attraction

Activists hope to use money from bus tours for community good.

December 05, 2009|Scott Gold

A group of civic activists, united by faith and a belief that the poor economy in the interior of Los Angeles is a social injustice, is preparing to offer bus tours of some of the grittiest pockets of the city, including decayed public housing, sites of deadly shootouts and streets ravaged by racial unrest.

After a VIP preview last weekend, L.A. Gang Tours expects to open to the public in January, giving tourists a look at the cradle of the nation's gang culture -- the birthplace of many of the city's gangs, including Crips and Bloods, Florencia 13 and 18th Street.

"This is ground zero for a lot of the bad in this city. It could be ground zero for a lot of the good too," said Alfred Lomas, a former Florencia member who has become a leading gang intervention worker in South Los Angeles and is spearheading the tours. "This is true community empowerment."

The nonprofit group plans to offer two-hour tours at an initial cost of $65 per adult, with profits funneled back into the community through jobs, "franchised" tours in new areas and micro-loans to inner-city entrepreneurs. Early routes will focus largely on South L.A., with forays through Watts and Florence-Firestone.

The concept appears to have no equal in L.A. -- for good reason, some might argue. It seems to echo, more than anything, the "slum tours" of such sites as India's Dharavi township and Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Those operations have been lauded as innovative economic tools and mechanisms for humanizing poverty -- and also attacked as exploitative and voyeuristic.

The L.A. tour comes after months of planning, and is offered in a spirit of education and public service. Lomas, who will lead tours at first, plans to talk about important chapters in the development of the city's core, such as how racist housing restrictions shaped ethnic enclaves and the formation of gangs.

Other aspects may raise eyebrows. Selling shirts painted on the spot by a graffiti "tagger" is one thing. But one backer said he also hopes to stage dance-offs between locals; tourists would pick a winner and fork over a cash prize. It wasn't long ago that organizers decided against a plan to have kids shoot tourists with water pistols, followed by the sale of T-shirts that read: "I Got Shot in South-Central."

"It's going to be fascinating -- but really controversial," said Francisco Ortega, a field staffer with the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and a respected mediator and neighborhood advisor in South L.A. Ortega said there could be great value in "sensitizing people, connecting them to the reality of what's on the ground."

"But the other side is that it could come across like a zoo or something," Ortega said. "You're being carted about: 'Look at that cholo over there!' It could be perceived as demeaning for the people who are living in these conditions. I don't know how they're going to manage those perceptions."

City Councilwoman Jan Perry said she has offered bus tours of South L.A. herself -- but those were for real estate leaders she was trying to persuade to invest in the neighborhood. She said South L.A. could benefit from an effort to demonstrate "the potential of the community." But she said some aspects of this kind of tourism could go too far.

"It's not right to put people on display," she said.

"It depends on their intent and how they balance it," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

Organizers, however, say they've been careful to plan tours that are respectful and neither glorify gangs nor exploit the poor.

"What matters to me is that kids get fed and families get help," Lomas said.

The organization is bolstered by business leaders and gang experts who are contributing start-up capital and advice.

Several are connected to the Dream Center, the L.A. church ministry where Lomas directs a food bank. Lomas credits the organization with helping him to turn his life around.

Kevin Malone, a former Dodgers general manager, sits on the board of the Dream Center's charitable arm and has become one of Lomas' chief supporters. Malone said he has become involved in human-rights causes, such as combating human trafficking. He said the possibility of introducing self-sustaining economic development into the city's poorest neighborhoods is no less of a human rights issue.

"I believe in this," he said.

Other backers include Ron Noblet, a leading gang expert and an early proponent of using gang intervention to augment traditional police tactics. Noblet dismissed any potential for criticism or controversy.

"There will be a lot of people who will be delighted if he fails," Noblet said of Lomas. "But there is clarity in the dream."

Another backer is Terry Jensen, an owner of Seattle-based Duninger Corp., which has subsidiaries in engineering and real estate investment. Jensen is the inventor of the "Jakpak," a jacket that turns into a tent with a built-in sleeping bag. It was designed for the homeless and communities hit by natural disasters.

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