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L.A. Gang Tours: Just ghettotainment?

A nonprofit company's plan to conduct tours of South Central may be well intended, but will it offer insight or titillation?

January 07, 2010|By Erin Aubry Kaplan

Way back in 1992, when the racial enmities laid bare by the riots prompted this paper to soul-search and decide that it needed more reporters of color on the ground in a city that was demographically almost impossible to cover on a good day, I started writing for The Times.

One of my first stories to run on the front of the old Metro section was about a Banker's Bus Tour arranged by the nonprofit Operation Hope. The idea was simple: escort a bunch of bankers and venture capitalists through South Central so they could see for themselves the tidy homes, the thriving small businesses, the investment opportunities that the media never bothered to show. The tour didn't avoid the ash and empty lots that marred the post-unrest landscape, but it did attempt to balance a picture of inner-city L.A. that had been skewed toward ghetto irredeemability long before '92. The goal was to cultivate optimism that would attract development dollars.

Fifteen years later, another South Central tour with ostensibly the same goal of community investment will begin rolling out Jan. 16. But L.A. Gang Tours has a radically different approach. Far from trying to balance a grim picture, founder Alfred Lomas is offering the grim picture itself as the main attraction. His tour is built around a dozen designated landmarks of gang history and culture -- Florence Avenue, the county jail -- that can only be described as anti-scenic. One stop in Pico-Union will instruct sightseers in the art and history of tagging. A headline on the L.A. Gang Tours website reads like an ad for a "Grand Theft Auto" video game: "Welcome to the Ultimate Urban Experience! Be the first in the history of Los Angeles to experience areas that were forbidden . . . until now!"

It's easy to construe all this as more calculated exploitation of the 'hood for entertainment, a phenomenon I call ghettotainment. But Lomas -- a minister, former gang member and longtime gang interventionist and aid worker -- says that would be a gross misreading of his intentions. He insists that he created the nonprofit tour solely to empower the communities where gangs live, by raising money to micro-finance small businesses and maintaining peace among the city's most hard-core gangs. "You can talk about exploitation all day long, but this is about spiritual redemption and change," Lomas says. "I'm not 'touring' the 'hood. I'm building awareness and insight."

That sounds good. But at the very least, the tour's marketing sends mixed messages and raises the question of whether it's even possible at this point to distinguish between showcasing the 'hood for altruistic reasons and showcasing it for titillation. Lomas says the tour is not geared to outsiders. Why, then, run a tour at all, especially one that charges $65 a ticket? He also admits to using Hollywood as a selling point. In detailing the tour's stops, the website breathlessly points out that celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Suge Knight have stayed in the county jail, and that movies such as "The Terminator" were filmed along the L.A. River. "L.A. is the film capital of the world," Lomas says. "It's a way of bringing people in."

And who would those people be? Who would spend money for a cruise through the toughest and least telegenic parts of L.A. except those who regard such parts as source material for all things urban, i.e., hip, black and cool? I shudder to think. Of course, the Banker's Bus Tour had an element of carnival barking -- Look, Ma, these folks are normal! -- that made me cringe. L.A. Gang Tours promises a more sober and educational atmosphere. But if you're looking at anything from a bus window, it's going to be awfully hard not to feel like you're on a ride. Especially a ride that offers a chance to see the "forbidden" L.A.

I'm not against taking bold action where gangs are concerned. They're a hardened local institution, one that's gotten more intractable the last 15 years. More than anything, gangs have battered the L.A. mythos as the last big American city where anyone can live out his or her dreams undisturbed. There's value in providing a visual education about gangs and the social ills and inequality that produced them. There's value in showing urban voyeurs the stark difference between reality and a movie or gangsta-rap soundtrack. But I'm not at all sure that L.A. Gang Tours will make those things clear. For all his enthusiasm, Lomas himself doesn't seem quite sure of what to expect when his project gets under way.

What really bothers me is the slap this delivers to the idea of L.A. itself. I'm nobody's booster; I was born and raised in South Central, and as a writer have argued for years against the narrative neglect of black and brown neighborhoods, which are too often miscast as the villains in our civic dramas. But as a native, I have a fierce and fundamental optimism about the city, including its gangs, and I bristle at the notion of anything that promises to show the world the "real" L.A. For me, the real L.A. is the one most of us still hold in our imaginations, a patchwork ideal that has taken plenty of hits and too many detours on the way to realization. It's an open-ended journey that we should all be making.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to Opinion.

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