The tongue-in-cheek headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times last month pretty much said it all: “The ’hood as a tourist attraction.”
It was an eye-grabber, reporting the launching this month of L.A. Gang Tours. Two-hour, $65-per-adult, full-service coach bus tours similar to those conducted in Hollywood, only through what the paper described as some of the “grittiest pockets of the city, including decaying public housing, sites of deadly shootouts and streets ravaged by racial unrest.”
There was even a detailed map, posting seven stops on the new tour from the Los Angeles River, where tourists will be able to view different styles of graffiti, to Jordan Downs, a notorious public housing project in the heart of Watts.
Among others, the paper quoted Alfred Lomas, the former gang member turned anti-poverty worker and gang interventionist who is spearheading the project backed by local businessmen. In trying to obtain a “safe passage” cease-fire agreement through Jordan Downs, the 45-year-old activist, who directs a mobile food ministry for the Christian-based nonprofit Dream Center, reportedly said to a “shot-caller” or gang leader: “I’m not saying you have to stop shooting each other. Just allow me a certain time in the day…. Just let the bus go through.”
In a lengthy interview with The Tidings, Lomas cried foul.
“Of course that’s crazy; it’s said in a different manner,” said the short, soft-spoken man, sitting at an outdoor picnic table in the center’s white stucco complex that used to be Queen of Angels Hospital. A flaming tattoo from his days as a Florencia 13 gang member rises above the collar of his rusty orange shirt.
“When you’re dealing with deep-rooted generational hatred,” he continued, “your approach has to be something that is obtainable and viable to them. It’s ridiculous for anybody to go into these areas and say you’re going to stop doing this. That’s like telling them ‘You have to stop existing,’ especially in an area that has failed them and their children. So a more creative approach, of course, is to say, ‘Look, I’m not telling you what to do. What I’m asking is, can we at least do this?’ But the eventual goal is the pursuit of peace.”
Lomas reports he’s gotten solid agreements from at least three gangs besides Florencia — South Side 18, Grape Street and East Coast Crips — to halt any activity when the tours are running from about 10 a.m. to noon. But he notes that only a small part of the route will actually go through hardcore gang territory. He likens it more to a tour of historical film locations showcasing events that have helped shape Los Angeles’ infamous gang culture.
And he stresses that in no way does it glorify gangs.
The tour, in fact, starts downtown at different ex-movie locales before proceeding to the concrete Los Angeles River bed to view the many tagging graffiti styles and learn about the taggers who produced them. The bus will pass by the Los Angeles County Jail, which houses more than 20,000 inmates in its facilities, as well as the federal Metropolitan Detention Center. Parts of Olvera Street, Chinatown and skid row are also on the initial planned route.
Heading down Alameda Street and Slauson Avenue, the bus will stop at the Slauson Park Recreation Center, where Black Panthers were once heavily recruited; the nearby site of the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) shootout with police; and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Firestone substation that served as the command post during the 1965 Watts Riots.
Then it’s up the 110 Freeway to the Pico-Union Housing Corporation, a community-based organization that sponsors a “graff” (graffiti) art lab. This is the only stop where tourists can get off the bus to mingle with residents and buy T-shirts designed by taggers, along with viewing art competitions.
What’s not on the tour for now, according to Lomas, are visits to two public housing developments --- Pueblo del Rio and Jordan Downs --- that were featured in the Times’ map and sparked plenty of controversy. “We want to have a common ground where everyone is satisfied,” he explained. “That’s ultimately the goal.
“My focus at this point in time is the social development of these areas that have been devastated by gang violence,” he said. “Really, it’s the result of seeing a lot of this devastation firsthand. I see firsthand the suffering of a lot of these kids who are in these areas that I serve in my food distribution. And they really have very little intervention, very little prevention efforts. Quite frankly, the previous strategies are a failure.”
The former gang member believes the tours will bring awareness to the many ongoing struggles faced by inner-city communities as well as recent accomplishments in grassroots organizing and reduction of violent crime. He also hopes it will bring “sustainable change” through the creation of tour jobs and offshoots such as micro-loans to sponsor area enterprises, transforming former drug dealers in legitimate entrepreneurs.
“But the first priority is saving lives. That’s our ultimate goal — public safety,” Lomas said. “It’s very important that we do this with honor and with dignity. We’ve already been able to create a dialogue with a lot of these rival gang members. So I think this is really cause for celebration.”
Father Gregory Boyle has worked with current and former gang members for 25 years. The founder and executive director of nationally acclaimed Homeboys Industries doesn’t know Alfred Lomas or his work, but believes L.A Gang Tours is basically on the wrong track.
“I think it’s kind of a misguided adventure,” the Jesuit said. “I don’t think it helps us do what we want to do, which is to truly create an environment where gangs aren’t part of the landscape. But this is actually featuring gangs, saying, ‘Over here is this gang and over here is that gang.’ It just gives them oxygen.
“People aren’t looking for the day when gangs get along. They’re really, really longing for the day when it’s not multiple choice for their kids [about which gang to join]. And that’s the point. So if our goals are so tiny, our gains will be tiny. People who think that the highest goal is peace don’t get what the largest picture is about. Who can be against peace? But you end up treating gangs like they’re nation states or they’re valid entities.”
Father Boyle agrees it would be beneficial if profits from the venture were poured back into poor neighborhoods. But he can’t imagine people wanting to go on such an urban tour in the first place.
“I suppose you could get them to stop shooting, kind of a safe passage,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s the issue. How have we made our communities better? We haven’t. There’s all sorts of unintended consequences when you start to work with gangs instead of gang members.”
Michael Wainwright of the Watts Gang Task Force, who administers a Department of Justice summer jobs program through Neighborhood Youth Achievers, has even stronger feelings against conducting gang tours. And he believes it’s “crazy” for anyone to tell gang members not to stop their shooting and killing all together, just during times when the tour buses were running.
“That’s ludicrous, that’s ridiculous, man,” he said. “All the work that we’ve done in trying to change the mentality affecting young people concerning gangs, then you have a tour that’s going to take people around to look at them and even get a T-shirt painted by taggers.
“I just can’t believe that, to tell you the truth. I can’t believe the city would go along with it. I can’t see the housing authority sanctioning it. I can’t see the community, the actual residents who would be subjected to being a zoo, almost, allowing this.”
Wainwright also doesn’t see how the money is going to funnel down to Watts or any other inner-city community through micro-loans. Or foster peace on the streets. And on Lomas’ claim that the tour will humanize poverty, he chuckled and observed, “How much about the inner-city has to be publicized to know that there’s poverty here? I mean, Ray Charles can see there’s poverty here.”
After a moment, he said, “Alfred Lomas may truly believe in all these positive outcomes, you know, but I don’t see it. I’m sorry, I don’t see it.”
But at least one major player in South Los Angeles does see the positive potential of L.A. Gang Tours: L.A.P.D Captain Mark Olvera, commanding officer of the Newton Division, which takes in much of the tour’s route. Over the Thanksgiving weekend the veteran police officer went on a VIP dry run tour and is convinced tourists will not be in danger.
“It’s on major streets with tons of traffic, and no one is even going to recognize it as a ‘gang tour’ because there’s not going to be any signs or anything,” he pointed out. “So as far as the safety thing, it would be like a Metro bus going down the street.
“People don’t shoot at buses, so I don’t think safety’s an issue besides the normal incident that might happen anyway. And like with the Hollywood tours, where you never see a star, you’re not going to see gang members. On the tour I took, I didn’t see a single one. What people are going to see is a lot of redevelopment going on in the Newton area, so it’s going to make L.A. look good.”
Olvera, who has worked closely with Alfred Lomas and other gang interventionists, credits their efforts with a nearly 16 percent drop in crime in his division in 2009 compared to 2008. He says to get cease-fire agreements from local gangs for safe passage during the tours was an “incredible challenge.”
“Alfred doesn’t want to be called a gang interventionist, but the ideal version of a gang interventionist is Alfred,” he said. “The work he’s done has really stopped gang retaliations from occurring after a shooting. I’ve seen him squash some pretty volatile situations between two different cultures — Hispanics and African Americans. He’s been able to go into some neighborhoods that no one has been able to go before.
“About the tour, the goals are all positive, and he’s not trying to glorify gangs,” stressed Olvera. “Alfred’s main goal is ‘Let’s stop the gang violence.’ He wants to do the right thing. He’s the real deal.”