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Guest Scholar

Jervey Tervalon is the award winning author of several books, including Understand This, a novel based on his experience teaching at Locke High School in Los Angeles. He is also the founder and director of Literature for Life, an educational advocacy organization and literary magazine. Here, he shares his personal experience of Los Angeles' changing demographics throughout the decades.

First Person Witness to the Changing Demographics in Los Angeles

Lacking a strong economic link to their community, many upwardly mobile African-Americans—as many as 75,000 by some estimates—deserted the community for the suburbs
The Los Angeles Riots: Causes, Myths, and Solutions
—Joel Kotkin and David Friedman

When I taught high school in Los Angeles in the eighties the class discussion would often turn to anything other than the tenth grade English curriculum. One morning we talked about what it meant to be a minority as I had read earlier an article about the changing ethnic make–up of the United States. Fifteen-year-old Moette Pearson didn't seem to get it "Why am I a minority? All I see is black people and Mexicans. How's that being a minority?" Of course I lit up at her question; I was offered the gift of a teachable moment and I seized it. I leaned forward and said with some confidence; Los Angeles is not a black city, not like New Orleans or DC. Most people are not black; most people in the United States are white. We're about eleven or twelve percent of the population."

"What? "LA's black!"

"You live in black Los Angeles; you just don't see the rest of LA."

"Around here it's black. That's what I know."

I shrugged and continued to explain how Los Angeles had far more people of Mexican ancestry than black people, and that white people were the majority, but teachable moment or not, Moette refused to believe what I had to say about Los Angeles. For Moette and for many of African American kids growing up in the near absolute racial isolation, Los Angeles was a predominately an African American city and she really didn't know a thing or give a damn about the vanilla suburbs. That was 1986 and maybe then she could believe that Los Angeles was majority black, but more than two decades later this Ȭhocolate City of Los Angele"s, so named by George Clinton in his P-Funk days, had largely ceased to exist as we knew then except on the margins; Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills and parts of Crenshaw and Jefferson Park. The days of Los Angeles as an imagined Chocolate City are long gone, black people are steadily leaving Los Angeles city and county. Greener pastures beckon; sometimes it's the beguiling song of the south and Atlanta in particular, or maybe it's anywhere outside of Los Angeles country. While it is reasonable to assume that this is natural, that when a people become decidedly more affluent and educated they disperse; that for various reasons the ghetto, the barrio, the racial enclave becomes unsuitable, but this dispersion feels like an emptying out of a region. It seems an inescapable fact that for many black Los Angelenos we've left or are in the process of getting out, running away, assimilating and disappearing into the greater vastness beyond Los Angeles, diluting our presence into irrelevance.

"LA County pop changes from 2000 to 2005: Total population change is +4.4%; African American population change is -3.2%. The total county population is still under 10 million (about 9,950,000), while the African American Population was about exactly 900,000 in 2005. (These numbers are survey estimates based on the American Community Survey and can't be as detailed or precise as the 2000 census.) Because of the faster growth of other groups, as well as its own decline, the share of the total county population made up of African Americans have declined from 9.6% to 8.9% in just five years."
Dowell Myers
Professor of Urban Planning and Demography
University of Southern California

In 1994, my mother was one of those pioneers in the reverse migration; think of her as a canary in the coal mine, who bailed to the sandlots and abundant cacti of Victorville. She left for very basic quality of life issues; rampant drug dealing, gang warfare, laughable policing and the common perception that black Los Angeles was going to hell. My former wife's parents lived in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in the late forties and even then, she said, they saw the coming decline and headed first to the promise of San Bernardino, and having quickly given up on that, headed to the greater promise of Santa Barbara. They wanted better opportunity consummate with their achievements; my Father-In-Law had multiple degrees and was a UCLA graduate. He and his wife, who also attended UCLA, wanted the best public schools for their children and the best neighborhoods, even if those neighborhoods would have few, if any black folks. What Los Angeles had to offer wasn't sufficient to keep them there. My parents didn't possess that kind of foresight; nor did they have the means to be so selective. We moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans in 1962, a few years before the Watts Riot. I remember being frightened seeing Jeeps driving down Exposition Blvd. with National Guard soldiers manning .50 caliber machine guns. I suspect that my parents thought they could isolate us, that we'd be cocooned safely inside of New Orleans culture and in our neighborhood with many New Orleans expatriates that seemed almost possible, but that ploy failed miserably. What we all faced, those from New Orleans, Texas or native black Angelenos were disappearing jobs that paid a livable wage, policing that enraged far more than it protected, and a largely broken educational system, overwhelmed whatever consolation a Los Angeles version of a Po' Boy could provide. But even so I'm grateful for having grown up on Second Avenue in the Jefferson Park area. It was more a small town than a city block; life was a long unfolding tragedy or comedy, or well imagined drama depending on how close you were to the epicenter of a neighborhood blow-up. Grateful for my memories of community; of the white-haired, rotund and sauced Mr. Bambino and his magical ribs, ribs he soaked in his homemade peach brandy when he tired of sipping the latest batch he had brewed in a wooden cask on his patio. Those ribs were sweet and beautiful with a golden glaze and were intoxicating and addicting, but he would tantalize us with a single rib then we'd have to return to that long line of feral kids hoping that he'd throw us another bone. I remember Mrs. James, my best friend's mother, with her Texas twang, who combed my unruly hair and soothed my fears about elementary school when my parents were too busy getting divorced to notice me, and I liked that she added a lot of oregano to the batter of her fried chicken. I remember Charles, our immediate neighbor and a no-nonsense man who fired a .38 into the air to commemorate the New Year; he owned a Jaguar repair garage and managed to retire at forty. There were characters aplenty, characters like Norma Zerker who wanted to sell my mother a hot television at such a wonderfully cheap price that she couldn't possibly resist. Of course, two days later he stole the television back from her to sell again to some other bargain hunter. Then there was the indestructible Leon who drove seemingly only when he was high, very high. He had spectacular collisions with trees and walls and other cars but miraculously never seemed to die, the most common theory of his amazing survival was that his drug induced stupor allowed him to be so relaxed that he could bounce about the car, uninjured. Back then even the low rent gangsters of the neighborhood, fellows who would inflict misery and who would die miserably, would wave at my mother and offer to help take in the groceries. We lived in a neighborhood that had its own culture and history that seemed as permanent as a small town could be; until crack invaded and the neighborhood imploded in on itself. The situation was so overwhelmingly dismal that it fed the numerous rumors that the government deliberately poisoned black neighborhoods with crack cocaine. I told my students in 1990 at Locke High that a riot was coming; it wasn't just because of police brutality, or gang violence or poverty alone. Crack played a vital role in fueling the mayhem that exploded in 1992; there was so much free floating rage; families disintegrating, folks losing their houses, domestic violence and the ubiquitous violence on the street that could be directly or indirectly attributed to the crack epidemic. If those tapes of Rodney and Latasha never would have reached the public, some other brutality would have triggered social unrest. If you were there, you'd know it too, the pressure was unbearable.

* * *

Doris, my girlfriend in high school was friends with Sandra Kirkpatrick, the one white girl at Susan Miller Dorsey High school in 1974. Now, in 2007, Dorsey High is possibly the only majority African American School remaining in LAUSD. Sandra was intelligent, shy and I suspect only a bit shell shocked about being the red haired white girl in an overwhelmingly African American school. We did have one handsome, well built, red head boy and though he was about as pale as Sandra, he had a spectacular afro and there was no doubt on which side he stood on the great racial divide, black with a gallon of cream in his coffee. I never thought about what it would be like to be in Sandra's position, for me to attend a school as white as Dorsey was nonwhite, where I'd be that dash of color in a sea of white faces. It never occurred to me to think that it was odd the year that I graduated from Dorsey High the school was 85% black in 1976 and about 12% Asian. That was the world I lived in and I never found it wanting; from gangbangers to Soul Train Dancers, there was a vast cross section of blacks and Asians. People I wanted to kick it with, and people I thought who might stomp me to death; people who would go far in life and those who wouldn't make it to their seventeenth birthday. Odd as it may seem, my experience of growing up in that world felt separate but equal. I figured that whites had to be doing the same thing, dodging stray bullets and stray ass kickings, though factually that was bullshit, that's how I thought about my life in relation to white people. I didn't know any except for teachers and police officers, so largely I could fantasize what I liked about them. No doubt we were truly isolated, culturally and physically. Linguistically, the isolation manifested itself in odd usages that made little sense outside of our neighborhoods, dog as a verb. "We dogged the shit out of that car. "He's a doggish niggah." It's such a useful construction that I wondered when I arrived at college why no one used it, or why they didn't understand me.

Consider the few whites I was familiar with, and the oddness of the sample; the young actor who played Grasshopper on Kung Fu, Sandra Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer prize winning food critic; I couldn't form a reasonable opinion of what it would have been like to go to an overwhelmingly white school. Plus, I had enough cynicism to not trust the idea that being around white people had to be intrinsically better than going to my school and being around black people. What did I care that I couldn't take AP. Calculus, or A.P. English? From soul music and funk I discovered Jazz and Jimi and white music. English literature came after the African American literature I stumbled across at Hall's bookshop on Santa Barbara Avenue; try reading Ishmael Reed first then Wordsworth; read Invisible Man then Jane Eyre. I just wanted to read and think my own thoughts and follow my own interests as did many of my pard'ners. I didn't have whiteness envy; the condition of believing on faith that if white people were near things had to be better. It wasn't uncommon to hear the opinion that white people had it wired, all you needed to experience the great abundance they had at their disposal was to transfer to Beverly Hills High and all the doors to prosperity would open. That was done often enough, kids bound and destined for Dorsey had parents sophisticated in the art of residency manipulation and they would get their children a transfer to Beverly Hills High or Palisades High, and where sadly enough, many of these kids of color were tracked into classes filled with black and brown kids they would have been with at their home schools. For those of us unsophisticated types remaining at our highs schools, we had to deal with the suspicion that we were at a serious disadvantage compared to our kin and neighbors who found how to get themselves to those desired white schools. Sure, I had dumb teachers, particularly a biology instructor who was so challenged she thought cats were in the canine family, but I also had wonderful teachers who didn't reflexively think black kids were damaged in some way. Whatever monolithic stereotype you might have of a black school if you truly knew Dorsey in the seventies you would be disabused of those stereotypes, black kids listened to Pink Floyd, obsessed over nerdish interests, hated faking being hard, were gay as all out doors and closeted as they wanted to be. Earl, one of my best friends, handsome and insane, played junior varsity basketball at Dorsey when Dorsey was the second highest rated team in the country, but secretly fiended for something more intellectual. He lost interest in sports when he discovered competitive chess, accommodating girls, and a raw and passionate love of philosophy, and decided that he wouldn't be complete unless he managed to steal the entire set of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy from the high school library so he could read it at his leisure. Earl made discoveries, thought of himself as some kind of urban naturalist, his interests largely being spider webs, bugs of any sort, orgasms of a particular sort; he was also a sensualist; In high school he researched those wild flocks of parrots, who lived in the trees in the Jefferson Park and Crenshaw areas, and how they had absorbed all the other songs of the song birds of the area. The wild parrots freaked out the other birds with their cacophony of sounds. Later in college when I was introduced to the music of Eric Dolphy, I swear I could hear in his solos those wild parrots. I read somewhere that Eric Dolphy was raised not too far from us and that he was influenced by those wild parrots. Apocryphal story or not, I owed Earl for connecting our life to Eric Dolphy's music and I owed him for much more. What I learned from him still seems as profound then as it does now; if your intelligence entertains you, you're truly lucky, blessed or whatever you want to call it.

Maybe we black kids going up in Los Angeles weren't equal in economic terms to those white kids living on the Westside but we suspected we might be making something of lasting cultural value. Though we didn't talk about it, me and my crew of closet geeks and nuts, athletes and chess players, sometimes we suspected that this world we lived in, violent and beautiful, vibrant and unrestrained would reverberate beyond the geographical boundaries of the south LA, but I didn't think this interest would be manifested by the fact that it's possible to watch Boys in the Hood almost any day or night of the year.

We didn't look at the rise of gangs as being shared pathology; the great majority of us didn't bang. Gangs were the rule of force, of ruthlessness, gangs were logical and inevitable. Why wouldn't they exist? I saw it like this that all over the city, throughout black Los Angeles it was happening, a teenage arms race. While in our part of the world it was the Cribs, a mile south it was the Brims, east the Pirus, and all of them with as much of an intolerant view of outsiders as the Cribs. So Lamar, the handsome young ladies man I knew who liked to dance at house parties in different neighborhoods, who had no intention of beating on anyone, was stomped simply because it could happen to those same gangbangers who killed him. He had to be stomped to make it obvious what everybody knew was happening: our blocks which were like small, self-contained towns were now territory to be defended as though the avenues and streets had natural resources or religious significance. Notions of self defense, of preemptive strikes, the need to never be caught slipping became a way of life. It was inevitable, or so it seemed, that sooner or later we all were going to die some stupid miserable death. We lived in a world without an expectation of safety, not from each other and certainly not the police who themselves acted more in the fashion of a gangs than protectors of the community. Truly, at some point all I wanted to do was survive. I wanted to survive to go to college, that was what I wanted, the promise of a new world, not necessarily a white one, though it was very, very white.

* * *

I'll remember the Jacaranda trees on Buckingham, the tingle of Arlington Double, of Ruth's Hamburgers on Jefferson, of the Five and Ten cent store on Jefferson, the absurd abundance of the Holiday Bowl with grits and Sushi under one roof; the deep hang outs on my porch in the avenues, when gun shots were far off in the distance and my girlfriend's skinny, brown legs looked beautiful as she stretched out on the green St Augustine lawn. Of seeing black faces at school and not noticing their blackness, of hearing accents from all over the place, New Orleans to Mississippi and marveling at the differences. What happened to black Los Angeles wasn't just the guns and the drug epidemics, the bad schools and the insane policing; it just cost too much…financially, spiritually, and socially. So much goes wrong in Los Angeles that the things that go right don't balance the scales for very many of us. Latinos have replaced African Americans in these neighborhoods and schools and I wish them luck, and hope that Los Angeles is kinder to them than to the black folks I knew in the Los Angeles I loved.