Los Angeles: Welcome to South Central

By Sarah Gooding

It's famous in hip-hop and notorious for gang violence. So naturally Sarah Gooding had some intimidating preconceptions when approaching South Central Los Angeles for the first stop of her USA adventure.

South Central Los Angeles. Photo / Sarah Gooding
South Central Los Angeles. Photo / Sarah Gooding

During a few unpredictable days in Inglewood as my partner and I made friends in the most unexpected places, the ideas I had about South Central were put to the test.

It began before we even left LAX.

While waiting for our friend Cameron to pick us up the morning of our arrival, we met an exuberant new local.

Alpha was towering but endearingly sweet, and had recently gotten out of jail, having been incarcerated for "irate aggression against a cop" while his white accomplice went uncharged. He told of his tough times while swindling Wi-Fi for us from a nearby help desk so we could contact Cameron.

His story of hardship was telling of the harsh realities we'd soon see. But despite Alpha's experiences, he was jubilant, having come to LA with dreams of starting a fashion label called YOLO (You Only Live Once).

Eventually Cameron arrived and we drove past ubiquitous palm trees to his house, the streets getting increasingly derelict. We pulled up at the old woodworking factory he lived in with his girlfriend, which had been converted into flats.

Its steep wire gate felt both imposing and unsecured.

We then went out to a burrito joint "nearby". I was bemused how Cameron's "round the corner" meant a 20-minute drive. Welcome to LA!

The unmarked diner appeared closed, but Cameron knocked on the door and a tiny window slid open. A heavily made-up Latino lady peered out, then ushered us in, locking the door after us. While we waited, a man stuck his head through the window, shouting, "Hey baby, it's your husband! I need money!" She rolled her eyes. I was beginning to think you needed to be staunch to get by here.

The next day, left to our own devices, we found ourselves waiting by the road for a bus to Santa Monica. It's hard to feel inconspicuous when there's no one on the street - everyone drives. Lowered cars cruised by, their drivers staring at us in what felt like a mixture of menace and confusion. I spotted a burned CD on the ground scrawled with the name "Heat 4 yo Ass - our first CD ever". It felt like asking for trouble to take photos.

Eventually we boarded a bus, but minutes later the driver told us to jump out and run for another. We were now travelling in a completely different direction.

Looking around, we realised we were the only Europeans on board. Sassy looking African American girls glared at us while comparing manicures and rehabs. A friendly young clipboard-toting man asked if we were enrolled to vote. After telling him we were from New Zealand, he exclaimed, 'What are y'all doing in South Central? Hot damn!"

As we chatted with him I felt the tension lift, and others engaged with us. It was while transferring to our second of four buses that we met a dapper older man named George Flower. He became our guardian angel of sorts.

Peppering his lively conversation with blessings in which he'd bow his head and touch our shoulders, he was intrigued about New Zealand, having no idea where it was. He thought it might be in Canada or Europe. When we said it was nearer the South Pole, awe transformed his face. "There's a South Pole?"

The cracked streets we drove down were bleak, the poverty apparent in the barred shop windows and loitering people.

George ultimately directed us to Santa Monica Beach, 2.5 hours after we'd set out. He wrote down his number so we could call him and send photos of New Zealand.

Despite our endearing encounters, we were hesitant about bussing home that night. A Ted Danson-lookalike walking his dogs in Venice gave us a number for an "eco-cab".

Later, a slick black Lincoln pulled up, its tinted window rolling down while a voice inside commanded, "This is your cab!"

I'm not sure it was "eco", but as he drove us in his leather-lined car, Tunisian-born Karim told us about his fear of South Central.

He couldn't stop asking why we were staying there, and going back. It felt like he wanted to help us out (of there), and he gave us his card.

"I almost didn't answer when you called," he admitted the next day when he drove us to the airport for a weekend in Vegas. He was terrified of going south again.

A couple of days later, when picking us up from the airport, he announced, "I have a story for you. But I won't tell you until we've left South Central." Once we'd collected our bags from Inglewood and were on our way north, Karim began. "The other day, a few streets from where you were staying, a man walked into a house and shot four people, killing two." He said he thought of us.

We realised later we'd been staying near the site of the LA Riots, around the 20th anniversary.

We stayed in West Hollywood the next few nights, mostly out of convenience. There were signs of hardship there too, but nothing like South Central.

But I'm glad I went. Otherwise I wouldn't have met George, Karim, or maybe even Alpha.

It also showed me the true diversity of the city, and that while it's tough in South Central, there are amazing people there.

- nzherald.co.nz

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