Mean Streets

Walking my two dogs on a recent morning, I rounded a corner at the bottom of a hill and came upon a killing.

Such was the force of the despair I felt when I saw it, but it wasn't a killing. It was a mauling. Four houses on 108th Street, two on either side of the street, had been slashed overnight with graffiti, their neat garage walls and brick fences cut up beyond recognition with red and black. Amid the angry hieroglyphs I made out words 18th street, Family, Crips, and other words I couldn't make out at all. The tangled lines looked like a swarm of bees. There is street art and there is tagger art, but this was neither. It was a message, a crude one at that, a push back to all the entirely gang-averse, middle-class folks living in Inglewood who walk their dogs and continue to otherwise believe that they live in a place where bad things are the exception.

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They are the exception, by the way. Always have been. But in a colored neighborhood, that's never the point. The point is context and percentage, and if bad things happen in a black place, say, five percent of the time, then it's a dangerous neighborhood. Period. It doesn't matter if bad things happen in neighborhoods like Silver Lake at the same rate, or even at a higher one. Everybody in L.A. understands that Silver Lake is a promising neighborhood with a bit of trouble, whereas Inglewood is a troubled neighborhood with a bit of promise (if that). The most obvious difference between the two is the presence, or absence, of white people. Gentrification certainly displaces poorer people and people of color, but it also invariably raises an area's reputation, to say nothing of its property values. Let's just say Inglewood's not there yet. Everybody's crowing about how much Compton is improving these days, but nobody's dreaming of living there except the black and brown people who already do.

After I got home, I reported the mauling to the city's graffiti abatement office. I was shaken, yet I was glad to be shaken--that meant that before I saw those cut-up walls, I wasn't expecting to see them at all. I walk every day expecting to encounter an appealing, well-kept, mostly hospitable place, and that's what I usually get. I am not stupid or deluded. I know I don't live in paradise. I watch my back, as all urban dwellers must, especially when I'm on foot. But when it comes to the image of my own community, I'd rather err on the side of optimism. That's my job.

My sister, by the way, thinks I'm crazy for walking my dogs at all. So does my mother. It's Inglewood, after all. We grew up here and know it better than anybody. "You take unnecessary risk," my sister, who's a lawyer, chided me. "Take that graffiti as a sign. Stay home. You don't have to go out."

But I couldn't disagree more. L.A. is already too full of places where people live behind doors, either by choice or necessity. I'm sure there's a middle ground, and I'm more than willing to walk it.

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