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Native son returns as an outsider to South L.A.

Writer Gary Phillips revisits his segregated South-Central neighborhood and sees Latinos striving the way African Americans did half a century ago.

August 19, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Writer Gary Phillips, who moved out of South L.A. in 1987, recalls when it was mostly African American. "We've gone from being the biggest minority in L.A. to being the smallest," he says.
Writer Gary Phillips, who moved out of South L.A. in 1987, recalls when it… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

When Gary Phillips returns to his old South L.A. neighborhood, it's with an old movie playing in his head.

The soundtrack is Sly and the Family Stone, and Funkadelic. The cast includes lots of African American kids like him, in 1960s and '70s hairstyles, with Phillips riding a Stingray bike his "pop" bought for him over at the nearby Sears.

He pedals over to South Broadway and the local store, Whitehead's, which is run by a white man with white hair named Whitehead. "He hired local kids to work behind the counter and was a really cool cat," Phillips told me.

All this was 40 years ago. It goes without saying that the South-Central of old is only a memory now. Phillips, a detective writer and community activist, moved out in 1987. Now his old neighborhood around Slauson Avenue and Figueroa Street has a decidedly Latin feel.

"I'm the outsider," Phillips told me as we walked through his old stomping grounds. "It really isn't my neighborhood anymore. The sights and sounds I remember are in the past."

For Angelenos of a certain age, loss is part of the urban experience. Our families have left the place we once called home, and seemingly everything to which we attach nostalgia is gone. For some, change feeds resentment. Phillips isn't one of those people.

"I'm too old to be bitter," he told me. Instead, he's used his memories to feed his writing, the images and people of his youth showing up in the pages of his books alongside the Asian and Latino residents and merchants of South-Central's present.

Phillips is 55. His memories of South L.A. are of a segregated place — nearly everyone was black — that was filled with life and hardworking people.

Gary's father, Dikes Wilbur Phillips, had come out to L.A. from Seguin, Texas, and worked for the Southern Pacific railroad's trucking company. Gary's mother died when he was 14, and he lived with his widower dad in a small house with a gabled roof on Flower Street near the tracks on Slauson. "I'd hear the train whistle at night," he said.

Our walk to his home took us down a weed-covered path alongside the 110 Freeway — "There used to be a sidewalk here," he said — and then to a wide, quiet street with a suburban feel.

"It looks completely different," Phillips said of his home. The hedges his father tended were gone. "We sold it to an African American man with a Salvadoran wife."

The ugly stereotype of South-Central is of a place of unemployment, indolence and social dysfunction. It isn't that way now, and it wasn't that way then.

Phillips remembered his old neighbors: "Mr. Caldwell worked for the gas company. Mrs. Lewis was a teacher. Mr. Guy worked for the railroad." Auto and tire plants not far to the east hired lots of locals. Those well-paid, union jobs gave the families on South Flower a foothold on a middle-class existence.

"There was one Mexican American kid in our neighborhood," Phillips told me. "Ricky hung out with us. I guess he didn't have any choice." They bought comic books at Whitehead's for 12 cents.

There were gangs, but in that pre-crack era, there was little of the gun violence that would later come. "We had the Slausons, the Businessmen and the Swans," Phillips remembered. And over in Maywood, he added, there was an all-white gang known as the Spook Hunters.

But law-abiding local kids feared the police more.

"You'd go to the barbershop on Monday and hear stories of brothers getting jacked up over the weekend," he said. The 77th Street Division patroled the neighborhood then, and its mostly white officers "had the reputation of being the boogeyman, the bane of black existence," Phillips said.

Eventually, every friend or relative he had in the neighborhood moved out. Of the kids he grew up with, Phillips said: "Carl became a lawyer, Spud did some time, and Mike went into the service as a career — the Navy, I think."

Phillips moved out when he got married, and his father died in 1993. For years afterward, he would come back to the old neighborhood to visit Gadberry's, a Texas barbecue joint on South Broadway described in a 1991 Times' review by Jonathan Gold as "the best barbecue pit in Los Angeles."

In the early 2000s, after a half-century of existence, Gadberry's shut its doors.

"I'd come back to get some 'cue," Phillips said. "But when they closed up there, there was no reason to come back."

Looking around his old neighborhood as we talked, Phillips guessed that less than one in five residents is black. It's a change seen in many corners of South L.A. "We've gone from being the biggest minority in L.A. to being the smallest," Phillips said.

In the new L.A., we're all minorities. In much of what we used to call South-Central, however, Latinos are a majority. Phillips looks at those Spanish-surnamed people and sees strivers like the African Americans who arrived here from the segregated South a half-century ago.

And today, the question that bothers him most is: "What's going to be the economic engine for the new L.A.?" How will we keep alive the promise of the South-Central he knew, a place where working people could build better lives?

"It's either coalitions, or nothing," he concluded. "That's the reality."

In other words, we have to band together to defend and build the L.A. of working people. We have to be open-minded and accepting of "outsiders."

Gary Phillips, now a resident of multiethnic, cosmopolitan Mid-City, has always thought that way.

After attending an almost all-black public elementary school, Phillips went to a Lutheran high school that was racially integrated. And as a teenager, he added some new, exotic sounds to his neighborhood soundtrack:

A bit of Led Zeppelin and some Santana too.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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