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'Visions and Voices of South L.A.' panel held at USC | Photo: Intersections South L.A. Instagram

Last week I sat on a panel at USC, one of a series called "Visions and Voices of South L.A." that explores the role of the university in the life and fortunes of surrounding South Central. I was there nominally representing the media. My fellow panelists were Alberto Retana of the Community Coalition; Francisco Ortega of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; and Sahra Sulaiman, documentary photographer and researcher for Streestblog L.A.

Ever since the unrest of '92, when the question of South Central's connection to the rest of the city exploded into consciousness, we've had panels like these that regularly address this question. Because of its location -- right in the middle of the action -- the question for USC has always been more of a soul-searcher than it's been for other institutions that have a certain luxury of geography. This particular discussion was lively and impassioned at points: Retana ran down the always sobering stats about drug-related incarceration and other trends that have waylaid blacks and browns in the last generation, though he also told encouraging stories about what the Coalition has helped residents to accomplish. The discussion at points got uncomfortable, notably during one exchange amongst the panelists and audience members about gentrification, that code word for whites moving into neighborhoods and not-so-magically driving up property values. But to me, some discomfort is a hallmark of any truly worthwhile discussion.

This one was certainly that. But when it was all said and done, I have to confess that, while I'm glad USC is still pondering the South Central question, I'm not sure what its role should be in bettering the community. More precisely, as a university with a student population whose expectations and visions of the future are pretty much the antithesis of South Central's reality, I don't know what USC can be. It was described at last week's panel as an economic engine of the area, meaning that it's just about the biggest business in that neck of the hood, if not the whole hood. True, it's in a better position than any other outfit to hire people in significant numbers, and to spread a culture of education and personal aspiration -- that's its business, after all. And USC has done that to a degree. The Annenberg School publishes an excellent, street-level online paper covering events and issues throughout South Central called "Intersections South L.A.," picking up coverage where the L.A. Times left off long ago; 32nd Street School, a highly regarded LAUSD multi-discipline magnet school, is affiliated with USC; and the university once ran a low-cost, community-based performing arts school. That was many years ago, but as a former student and beneficiary of that school, I can tell you that the impact of that particular education has been lifelong.

But times have changed. Economic and racial lines have become more pronounced, with inequality almost an accepted fact of American life. Perhaps more than other big cities, L.A. is exhibit A of that divide between haves and have-nots, and USC, like other well-capitalized, brand-name universities with global appeal, is seen much less as a denizen of South Central than as a symbol of the one percent (or the aspiring one percent). The contrast between it and the other 99 percent who live in the neighborhood, especially east of Figueroa, is growing as USC itself is growing. In the last twenty years, that growth has been pretty explosive as the university has bought or taken over more surrounding property and gone on a construction spree; the Figueroa corridor now boasts at least as many amenities per square inch -- restaurants, housing -- than Westwood Village, the affluent neighborhood of UCLA. Maybe more amenities.

But all of this is geared to students, of course. The residents of South Central are not living in the new complexes, nor, I suspect, hanging out in coffee bars (though they will very likely be hanging out in the Trader Joe's that's finally being built in the hood -- for the USC demographic, not for the long-suffering grocery shoppers of South Central. But we'll take it). One friend of mine, a black man who attended USC in the early '60s, says that the buffer that the university has always had between itself and the community is simply getting bigger.

Maybe "bubble" is a more apt word. The fatal assaults against two USC graduate students in recent years have made tragically clear how much the university had assumed that it indeed lives in a kind of bubble that the uglier social realities of South Central can't or won't pierce. That isn't true. Among students, the assaults have only heightened fears of life beyond the bubble/buffer and made the South Central connection that much harder to forge. Even as an ideal, it struggles -- connect to who? For what? The slogan "My South L.A." was a kind of banner/logo for that ideal that backgrounded last Thursday's event. But I admit, it felt more like a marketing campaign than anything else. A go-to app.

Which is fine, in a way. Most times you have to imagine something before it happens. I just worry that we'll settle for the imagining, the ideal, without really fleshing it out or doing the hard work of somehow making USC and its environs a real community, with stakes in common. I'm all for coming together. But you can't do that until or unless you acknowledge the differences -- and more importantly, the nature of those differences -- in the terrain you're standing on now.

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