South L.A. can point the way

A police officer questions a girl last year in a South Los Angeles area known for sex trafficking involving minors. Joe Mathews says South L.A.’s reputation is outdated and the area is on the move.
A police officer questions a girl last year in a South Los Angeles area known for sex trafficking involving minors. Joe Mathews says South L.A.’s reputation is outdated and the area is on the move. Los Angeles Times

The old question about South Los Angeles, when it was defined by gangs, poverty and the worst urban riots since the Civil War, was: “How can we save it?”

Today, the question is: How can South L.A. save us?

It now embodies California’s greatest possibilities and struggles. In an especially angry and pessimistic time in America, South L.A. offers the nation an optimistic, tough-minded narrative of determined, steady improvement.

South L.A. is the closest thing we have to an urban success story and the furthest thing from a fairy tale. Crime, despite recent upticks, is way down. Schools are better, home ownership and housing prices are up, and transportation and arts options are multiplying. Major new developments are arriving, bringing promise and peril.

Encompassing 30 very different neighborhoods in the city and county, South L.A. is close to San Francisco in size (50 square miles) and population (850,000). But it’s sometimes described as L.A.’s version of Oakland – a poorer place being changed by its residents’ efforts and by proximity to the wealth and spillover housing demand of L.A.’s booming downtown.

How do South L.A.’s people and businesses make sure they don’t become exiles from their own success, driven away by rising costs? That question resonates statewide.

South L.A. is the largest working-class enclave left in coastal California. If it can figure out a way to remain that way, it could provide a crucial model for a state increasingly divided between some of the nation’s wealthiest residents and America’s largest population of poor people.

South L.A.’s bigger developments often come with “community benefits agreements” and local hiring guarantees that are popular among elected officials. But it remains to be seen whether such agreements lead to enduring improvements or undermine more thoughtful planning and development.

USC’s The Village, combining student housing with retail (including South L.A.’s first Trader Joe’s), opens next year and is being closely watched because it comes with some of the strongest community benefits in city history, including a $15 million-plus affordable housing fund.

The just-completed Expo Metro rail line, connecting South L.A. with downtown and Santa Monica and the forthcoming Crenshaw line make South L.A. a crucial test of whether transit investments can improve neighborhoods. And South L.A. is home to an astonishing number of charter schools and other educational experiments that could point the way for a state investing more in poor students.

South L.A. is also fertile ground for intriguing new approaches in trash and recycling, parks and voter registration. If these initiatives can show results in famously tough South L.A., they are likely to find a receptive audience in urban areas around the country.

The two most profound changes needed in South L.A. involve human capital. First, it should benefit from statewide efforts to help people clean up their criminal records by expunging or reducing non-violent felony convictions. Second, if this country ever passes long overdue immigration reform and undocumented workers could expand their horizons and businesses, South L.A. might be unstoppable.

South L.A.’s reputation in mainstream media hasn’t caught up with its improved reality. But that could soon change thanks to two political campaigns. Steve Barr, founder of a charter school network with South L.A. campuses, is challenging incumbent Mayor Eric Garcetti next year. In 2018, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who focused considerable attention and money on South L.A., will likely run for governor.

An updated narrative of South L.A. is vital to the region’s ability to protect itself from changes that might threaten its progress or displace its people. South L.A. is on the rise, and we shouldn’t let anything get in its way because if it can make it, there’s hope for all of us.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at