I've always known that race and geography are intimately connected in L.A., a city practically built with segregation in mind. Though I deplore the effects of segregation, I always felt a nativist pride in the place I was born and raised, South Central. I felt the same about Inglewood, just across the border from South Central, where I moved as a teenager and where my husband and I bought a house six years ago. I imagine lots of people, whatever their color, have the same affection for their own stomping grounds.
But lately the race/geography thing has begun to wear on me. There are many reasons why, but let's start here: I'm out socializing at a reception or function somewhere north of the 10. The tension that invariably arises between me and the pleasant, mostly nonblack folks I've just met has nothing to do with politics, religion or race. No, the big conversation killer follows that most innocuous icebreaker: "So, where do you live?"
"Inglewood," I say. Instead of moving on to another innocuous question, people freeze. Their eyes widen as they search their mental database for something encouraging to say about Inglewood. Near the airport? The Forum, where the Lakers used to play? But I know what they're really thinking is that Inglewood is South Central West, a forbidding place of gangs and graffiti that's mostly black. Chances are very good that these people avoid Inglewood on principle and don't know a soul who lives there.
This chance introduction becomes a direct challenge as people grapple with how to assess me. After all, black people who live in Inglewood are not at all like blacks who live in Hollywood or Venice or Culver City; my color is not mitigated by a context whites recognize as good or that they frequent themselves. Nor do I live in the famous black middle-class aerie of Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, View Park or even Leimert Park. I am therefore not quite the cosmopolitan, locally connected black person these people assumed I was. Or I may be, but these qualities are compromised by the fact that I claim one of Southern California's least desirable ZIP Codes. When people finally respond to the Inglewood bombshell, it's generally something like "Uh huh" or "Really? Great!" And then the conversation meanders until one of us finds the right moment to discreetly wander off.
Of course, this whole scenario is risible. Other people's discomfort is not my problem. Inglewood is perfectly habitable, a fact so self-evident to me that I take a certain satisfaction in watching the truly clueless wrestle, usually unsuccessfully, with their own ignorance.
But the truth is that I am as put out as they are by where I live. I may score a moral victory on the Westside, but when I return home, I return to a frustration about my neighborhood and what it is and isn't. As one of the last predominantly black cities with a significant working and middle class, much is riding on Inglewood. And at this stage of my life, married for almost 10 years, with a mortgage and three dogs, Inglewood to me is not just a 'hood or a noble idea to defend to outsiders — it's a last stand.
And the signs of my city standing, let alone thriving, are not good. Although I hate the stigma of Inglewood as black urban failure, there's some truth to it. We have nice homes, but our public schools are struggling. We have some retail amenities — Chili's, Bed Bath & Beyond — but not much to make Inglewood a destination. The Hollywood Park racetrack is scheduled to be shut down; the neighboring casino, with its economically challenged clientele, is hardly Vegas.
One of the things we don't have that troubles me most is accountability. Our police force made national headlines two years ago for shooting four unarmed people in four months, and Inglewood citizens barely complained. The shootings exposed the city's class identity crisis: We'd rather trust the cops like other prosperous people do than oppose the cops and risk looking like poor black people who generally complain about such things. The irony is that this choice to act upwardly mobile is a false choice that disempowers everybody. Good places to live hold their public servants accountable; Inglewood does not.