Shoes and Sympathy: When My Shopping Trips Turn to Political Discourse

Driving south on La Brea from Centinela earlier this week I stopped in at one of my favorite Inglewood hangouts, New Style Web. It's a shoe and clothing boutique with a bright, snappy storefront that sets it apart from lots of other storefronts along that hilly stretch of the avenue. As a business and as a physical space, New Style Web exudes an air of forward thinking and the self-assurance characteristic of successful retail -- understated but artful window displays that change every few weeks that catch the eye and make you want to stop. The place makes you curious, and more than that, curious about what else might be in this part of town that abuts the better-off black enclaves of Ladera Heights and Baldwin Hills that begin a few blocks north. It raises questions about Inglewood in a good way.

I do love shoes -- I've revealed in more blogs than one that in addition to being a social critic and a latter-day race woman, I'm a recovering shopaholic. That's not as contradictory as it sounds. New Style Web has plenty of shoes and other distractions to soothe the soul when the political going gets tough (as it certainly has gotten this week with the machinations of the Supreme Court), though that's only half the draw for me. The other half is the owner, Kerry, a charismatic, 40-ish expert on fashion and retail trends who can also hold forth on politics, everything from the state of the city to the troubled state of the race. Whenever I stop in we have animated and far-ranging discussions, and this week was no exception.

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The topic du jour was schools. We both agreed that the slow (lately accelerated) implosion of the Inglewood school district will be terrible for the city, especially for a city that used to be well-known for its quality schools, the primary reason people used to move here at all. Of course that was decades ago, before white flight, but the irony still stings.

Kerry lives in Inglewood and has school-age kids, but they don't attend schools in town. I know he's always been a bit ambivalent about this, and I frankly have been too; we both know that conscientious parents like him opting out is another knife in the heart of Inglewood Unified. But it's also impossible to criticize parents who want the best for the children, haven't found the best in their own backyard, and don't have the time to wait around for improvements to come on line. Black parents especially are anxious to prepare their kids for a society in which it's still tough for black people, even educated ones, to flourish. Statistically, the odds are against all of us. So I understand and respect Kerry's decision, though in the big picture it sucks (my favorite verb of late). He agrees with me on that one.

But he did admit that he found out something surprising ten years ago. At the urging of his neighbor, a veteran Inglewood schoolteacher who was nearly apoplectic about Kerry's poor opinion of the district, he did some research on test scores. Turns out that Inglewood's scores compared very favorably to Culver City's, a place he assumed was far superior educationally (indeed, Tony Ladera has tried -- and failed -- in the past to bail out of Inglewood's district and join Culver City's). He was pleasantly surprised, even shocked. Yet the information didn't fundamentally change his mind. "I grew up around here, I went to these schools, I know," he said with a finality. Experience was his most persuasive teacher. Besides, he added, that was ten years ago. "Things are much different now," he said. In other words, whatever bright spot Inglewood might have had hasn't grown enough to significantly alter its fortunes or the minds of parents and residents like him.

He's right, of course. But that view contributes to the paradoxical sense of alienation we all feel in the community where we live and that we know so well. Perhaps too well. Before I left the store with two new summer dresses (it's been a tough week), Kerry tried to sell me on the idea of running for local office. I laughed and said that I function much better as a social critic. I handed him his own suggestion -- why didn't he think about running? He laughed, but I could tell he didn't think it was so preposterous. "You have to know a lot," he said. He does. That's exactly the problem. The solution is that there is always more to know.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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