The Boys Are Back In Town

Hard to believe, but my thirtieth high-school reunion is this August--Gardena High School, class of '79. Go Mohicans! (note: the mascot is now the Panthers, 'Mohicans' a casualty of the movement some years back of public schools to scrap team names and images that denigrated Native Americans. I completely understand, but miss the original nonetheless). Such a personal milestone is mind-blowing. But even more stunning is the fact that my GHS experience is turning out to be far and away the most racially integrated experience I've ever had on my home turf. With its almost equal mix of Japanese, white, Latino, black, Pacific Islander (Samoans constituted most of our football team's defensive line) and other Asians like Chinese, Filipino and Korean thrown in for good measure, Gardena High was a bastion of diversity long before the word came into vogue. And it was diverse in an organic way that other schools across Southern California could only imagine. In the late '70s, as the rest of L.A. was waging political battles over busing and court orders to desegregate--let alone integrate--I was going through high school assuming that the very mixed atmosphere at GHS was the norm, or at least a blueprint for the future.

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I was wrong about that. I was also wrong about Gardena High: it didn't stay diverse. The atmosphere I took for granted turned out to be the last chapter of a brief, blissful era in which working- to middle-class folks in a modest part of the South Bay all found themselves in the same school at the same time. As the city of Gardena prospered and modernized, and as neighboring areas like Compton and Harbor Gateway got rougher, whites and Asians opted out of the local schools; today, GHS is almost exclusively black and Latino, like so many other inner-city campuses that underwent 'resegregation.' (A distressing word indeed).

Yet the history and possibility of Gardena lives on. I was thrilled to recently discover through an article in the Daily Breeze that a documentary about the city and its singular racial history, called "Freeway City: The Story of an L.A. Suburb," has been made by a young filmmaker named Max Votolato. It's a curious pairing of worldly artist and provincial subject. Max's mother was born in Cairo, his father is from Rhode Island, he grew up in South London, and he's only lived in L.A. eight years. But Max says he finds in Gardena many small-town qualities that make small towns everywhere so iconic, but with a big-city backdrop that makes Gardena utterly unique--being a magnet for Japanese immigrants, for example, or a haven for casinos when L.A. county had none. "It was really a center of gravity for the Japanese--Gardena was very well known in Japan," he says. "The demographics have fluctuated, but I believe the spirit of the place stayed the same."

The nostalgia bonus for me is that the documentary's executive producer is Brian O'Neal, one of Gardena High's more famous alum of the last thirty years. O'Neal (class of '74) fronted the rock band The Busboys in the 80s; they broke through with the hit single "The Boys are Back in Town," the signature song from the Eddie Murphy movie "48 Hours." Brian still performs with the Busboys, and he's doing original music for the documentary in addition to being executive producer. Tall, lanky and still youthful at 52, Brian lives in Studio City these days. But you can't take Gardena out of the man. "There's a presence and an influence I associate with the town that's still there," says the former student body president. "For me, Gardena really was diversity personified. Once your mind is stretched by an idea, it never goes back to its original dimensions."

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