August 12, 2021

Place Matters: Learning from South Central Dreams

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Who we are is shaped by the places we live, and we in turn shape these places. This is one of the resounding messages in a new book by my colleagues, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Manuel Pastor, South Central Dreams: Finding Home and Building Community in South LA.

When many people hear the phrase “South Central LA” they may think they know a lot about the area, even if they have never been to Los Angeles. Movies like Colors (1988), Boyz n the Hood (1991), and Menace II Society (1993) brought the collection of neighborhoods known as “South Central” to national attention, painting the area as a bleak landscape of gangs, violence, and mayhem.

Violence by and upon its Black residents made “South Central” seem like something of a hell scape. This term became so derisive that the city officially changed the name to South Los Angeles in 2003. The authors note:

…The images that remain in the public’s mind are of the civil unrest of 1992, the gang warfare that too often wracked the area, and excess policing that has given South L.A. the vibe of a war zone. Reinforcing that is that if one drives…on the major boulevards, one often sees tattered shops, accumulated trash, hourly hotels, and an abundance of liquor stores operating amid a classic food desert (p. 218).

But there was, and is, much more to the neighborhoods that comprise this area, which South Central Dreams details. Through interviews with residents, community leaders, and demographic data, the book challenges the one-dimensional image that the area retains despite dramatic changes.

My home institution, the University of Southern California (USC), sits at the north end of this area, in University Park. Out-of-town family and friends think they have a sense of the neighborhood, and usually get it wrong. I am always surprised that even lifelong Angelenos--especially white Angelenos--have no conception of the area, and some don’t even know where USC is.

On multiple occasions, I have heard people mention in passing that USC is in Watts, a neighborhood at the southern end of South LA, a freeway ride about 8 miles away from campus. This ignorance is largely due to the racialization of the area and the tendency to view this 51 square mile area of 28 neighborhoods as monolithic. (Read: low-income, predominantly Black, and a place to avoid.) A new student—a white southern California native—once mentioned in class that he was told by a family member that if he got off at the wrong freeway exit, he would certainly be killed.

But South Central Dreams challenges these and other assumptions. Most importantly, the area is no longer mostly Black, but is now mostly brown, as the Latinx population has grown while many Black residents have moved to other parts of southern California. While the area was about 80 percent Black in 1970, by 2016 it was about two-thirds Latinx (p. 60).

Yes, the relationships between longtime Black residents and Latinos can be complicated, but the authors' findings challenge simplistic explanations of ethnic rivalries. Younger Latinx residents in particular felt a strong connection with their Black neighbors, challenging some of the anti-Black racism expressed by their elders and peers in other parts of the city. Several of their respondents talked about their ethnic identity as being informed by the Black culture in their communities and see themselves as more racially tolerant than people are in other parts of town. “Racial formation occurs in a particular place,” the authors explain, reinforcing how identity is not isolated but draws upon “place-based sedimentation” (p. 228).

Their findings challenge traditional theories of migrant settlement, challenging traditional notions of “assimilating into a white middle-class mainstream” (p. 12). Instead, the authors describe “a sort of ethnic sedimentation” where “the legacy of Black political resistance was fueling a new place-based identity for African Americans and Latinos” (p. 12).

Rather than thinking of South LA as a place to leave as soon as their fortunes improved, people in the neighborhoods they studied felt a sense of connection to the place and their communities:

The second-generation Latinos that we interviewed expressed love, hope, and pride for South L.A. They were proud of their social formation in the South L.A. setting, and they felt a strong sense of belonging and rootedness to this place…None of them minimize the acute problems that still plague South L.A. (p. 138).

Yes, there is more crime here than in other parts of the city, but it has declined dramatically since the 1990s (as crime has throughout much of the country). The homicide rate in the city dropped from about 20 per 100,000 in 1990 to 5 per 100,000 in 2019.

Listen to Karen Sternheimer's conversation with Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo on working as part of a research team:

South Central Dreams Podcast

Despite the ongoing challenges, the ability of many of their informants to purchase homes in the area both reflects and reproduces the sense of rootedness many of their respondents experience. As noted above, some of the major boulevards in these communities are very run down, but the residential areas often contain tree-lined streets with well-kept bungalows and community gardens. A recurring theme in South Central Dreams is the notion of “home making”: not simply cleaning and maintaining one’s home, but “coming to feel that you belong and are attached to a new place,” something they describe as “an active practice” (p. 83).

And just as home making is an active process, communities are dynamic and changing, rather than static. The book ends with a discussion of gentrification and displacement as high housing costs in Los Angeles County are changing the demographics of South L.A. today. With improved public transportation, and maybe even the use of the Waze app to introduce commuters to the tidy homes on residential side streets, this area is seeing more white homebuyers; one of South L.A.’s neighborhoods, West Adams, “was rated as among the top ten most competitive neighborhoods in the entire United States in 2016,” meaning that homes sell quickly and often over asking price (pp. 218-219).

Scholars who study urban sociology, racial and ethnic formation, social movements, and migration will find that South L.A. offers a rich data source to explore the intersection between all of these areas of inquiry. Readers who don’t know much about this area—or those who think they do based on the classic ‘hood films of the 1980s and 90s—will have a much deeper understanding about South L.A. and the complex role that place plays in people’s lives.

Want to learn more? Check out the book's Instructor's Manual with discussion questions and slides


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