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School Me: USC vs. South Central

USC campus.
USC campus.  | Photo: Trader Chris/Flickr/Creative Commons License


When I was growing up, USC was: 1) a championship football game; 2) an event that usually involved sports, parades, roses, and rankings; 3) a culmination of all three every year around New Year's Day. USC as an actual place I had no idea about. It was in L.A., of course, but I never saw it. Nobody I knew attended school or worked there. I assumed it was some place very far removed from where I was in South Central, maybe well outside of L.A. itself. Southern California is a big place; the University of Southern California was suitably mysterious.

The fact that USC is not only in town but in South Central didn't really dawn on me until the late '70s, when I started taking piano lessons through its community music school. The music school operated out of a nondescript building on Figueroa just north of USC itself, and the instruction it offered locals like me was low-cost but high quality -- everything from instrumental to vocal training to dance. We used to have recitals, complete with punch and cookies on lace doilies, at the Bovard Auditorium on the main campus, and I was very impressed with myself performing at a school like that, on a stage like that.

That experience fueled not just artistic ambitions but collegiate ambitions, too; I wound up going across town to UCLA, though I credit USC with making that feasible by early in my life solidly bridging the gap between the idea of higher education (lots of kids in my neighborhood had one, generally through sports) and the experience of it (few if any kids had that). It gave me a running start. A big part of the feasibility was the fact that USC was so geographically close to home. UCLA was not -- Westwood and West L.A in general was a planet I hardly visited at all -- but by the time I got to Westwood it didn't matter; I was convinced that a university was a place I belonged, wherever it was located. College and I had a good relationship off the bat. A pact.

I thought about all this walking the USC campus yesterday when I went to speak to a journalism class at the Annenberg School about local reporting. USC has changed tremendously since I last was on campus with any regularity, and it is still changing. Development and construction feels nonstop; the campus is full of scaffolding and tents, and the more recent additions have a shiny, corporate feel. For years the busy development has extended beyond the university fences and into surrounding South Central with housing and retail and other amenities aimed at the burgeoning USC student population, with a few things aimed at residents as well. Unlike what I remember growing up, USC is now a highly visible citizen of South Central. Some would say it's colonizing the area, but however you characterize it, what's inarguable is that it's raised its profile significantly. When I started reporting for the L.A. Times in the aftermath of the civil unrest in 1992 -- we worked out of an office at Flower and Exposition, across the street from the university -- USC had the air of a bunker in territory that was not exactly enemy, but alien. I don't believe it is a bunker any longer.

Which is why I was more than mildly shocked to realize in class yesterday that many students at USC regard South Central as dangerous and forbidding. Some of the class discussion was about how to report in the local community; in addition to sensible things like knowing where you're going, looking up local organizations, and making contact with movers and shakers -- things you'd do anywhere -- there were admonitions to hold on to valuables and to not look people dead in the eye. Some of the admonitions came from South Central natives interviewed by USC reporters about their own neighborhoods -- Watts, Manchester Square, etc. On one level it was all just an iteration of having common sense in a big city, but the message was clearly directed at whites who might be thinking of venturing into a black and brown area mythologized as an inherently dysfunctional netherworld hostile to outsiders, to say nothing of hostile toward its own.

It was strange, almost surreal, to hear all this. It was odd for the neighborhood with which I'm most familiar populated by a million people to be talked about as an unknown quantity; at points I felt like I wasn't in the room. And yet South Central is all these students' neighborhoods, too. For the duration of their education, at least, they are here. The class was energetic and a good experience for all; many students said so afterward. I only hope that the gap between abstract and real that was bridged for me so many years ago by this very place will also be bridged for them.

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