Thursday, August 24, 2017
He's a staff writer at LA Weekly and a contributor to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times. His work as also appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He's been on the feature writing staffs of the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Emmis Publishing's Ciudad magazine. He's appeared on CNN, Investigation Discovery and Reelz multiple times to speak about stories he's covered. He's participated in panel discussions organized by Zocalo Public Square, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Women Abuv Ground. He's a second-generation journalist from San Diego. His retired father, Fernando Romero, covered the border and Mexico for the San Diego Union-Tribune; he also worked as a section managing editor at the Los Angeles Times.
News and features:
Will Marijuana Legalization Benefit People of Color? (LA Weekly cover, Oct., 2016)
Strider Wasilewski is the Dogtown Surf Hero You've Never Heard Of (LA Weekly cover, July, 2015)
How Hollywood Keeps Minorities Out (LA Weekly cover, Feb., 2015)
How Pasquale Rotella Built His Rave Empire (LA Weekly cover, Sept., 2013)
Koreatown: America's Hippest Neighborhood (LA Weekly cover, Nov., 2012).
Gary Richards Splits With Live Nation (LA Weekly, Aug., 2017)
Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper and Co. Raise Dead (Rolling Stone, Sept. 2015)
Steve Aoki: The Neon Punk of EDM (LA Weekly cover, March, 2013)
The Verdict on Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas (Las Vegas Weekly, June, 2011)
Joris Voorn Blazes New Digital Trails (Village Voice, March, 2009).
Appearances and honors:
-Regular op-ed contributor, Los Angeles Times.
-Finalist for "online journalist of the year," award, L.A. Press Club, 2010, 2013 and 2014.
-Contributed to LA Weekly's 2012 Maggie-award-winning issue.
-New Media Reporting instructor at UCLA Extension, fall 2011 and summer 2012.
-Brief guest on CNN's Nancy Grace Aug. and Sept., 2010.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
- The Rainbow Collision (Ciudad magazine, Oct./Nov., 2005): Tensions erupt between African-Americans and Latinos on Los Angeles streets.
- Dead of Night (Ciudad magazine, June/July, 2007): A look back at the Night Stalker's murderous reign of terror in the summer of 1985.
- The Other Side (Ciudad magazine, Feb./March, 2006): An examination of Latinos who vociferously oppose illegal immigration.
- The Gentle Beast (Ciudad magazine, Aug., 2007): A profile of Ultimate Fighter Tito Ortiz, who overcame a hardscrabble childhood to become a champion in a controversial sport.
- Desolation Boulevard (LA CityBeat, Feb. 5, 2004): A pre-Steve Lopez feature about the intractable conditions for the homeless people living on L.A.'s Skid Row.
- A Turbocharged Obsession (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 1997): The first mainstream look at the import-racing scene that would inspire the Fast and the Furious movie franchise.
- Gangster's Paradise Lost (LA CityBeat, Nov. 6, 2003): A different angle on the gentrification of L.A.'s urban Westside; decades-old gangs face extinction.
- A Shadow on the Waves (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 26, 1994): The rarely-told story of a mythic wave-charger who changed the sport of surfing by inventing the modern board.
- Boomtown (LA CityBeat, Nov. 18, 2004): The gleaming resurrection of downtown represents a new era for Los Angeles, but leaves working-class residents in the dust.
- Sample This! (LA CityBeat, Oct. 14, 2004): A little-known court ruling outlaws most sampled music in hip-hop, dance and beyond, but artists find creative loopholes.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
By Dennis Romero
It's a squealing guitar riff that's barely background noise in N.W.A.'s "100 Miles and Runnin'." Just a bit of acid ax buried under the rap. Nonetheless, this three-chord bit has helped make those who sample without permission - and permission means paying up - industry outlaws.
Astonishingly for some, the practice of sampling has been pushed against the ropes by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. A recent ruling by the court forces producers to get clearance for using even one-note snippets of others' performances. It has sent a chill through the hip-hop and dance music worlds. "In an instant," declared the anti-industry website downhillbattle.org, "this act made the majority of sample-based music illegal."
More than any other instrument, the sampler symbolizes pop music's post-rock, postmodern era. Hip-hop, electronic dance music, boy bands, and teen pop sex symbols have all ridden a sound-wave constructed from other people's music, thanks to the sampler. The device transformed the way music is made, taking the industry from studio musicianship to a system of mix-and-match sound construction using music boxes and computers. Many pop acts don't even make music so much as put their highly processed vocals on top of sampladelic beds of sound pieced together by behind-the-scenes hitmakers such as the Neptunes and Timbaland. Those "producers" might hit a pad on their Akai MPC-2000 sampler and, as the beat kicks in, ask their pop star client, Can you get with this? This is music-making in the 21st Century.
The case focused on Los Angeles gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A., which sampled two seconds of Funkadelic's "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" for its single "100 Miles and Runnin'." The three-member panel used the controversial Millennium Copyright Act, intended to curtail file sharing, as a guiding light for its ruling last month. "If you cannot pirate the whole sound recording, can you 'lift' or 'sample' something less than the whole?" the judges stated. "Our answer is negative. Get a license or do not sample."
"The market will control the license price and keep it within bounds," the judges ruled.
But one man's bounds are another man's unreachable heights. Getting a license often means negotiating with the artist or label in question and giving away as much as half your publishing royalties, not to mention up-front fees that can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars - clearly out of reach for up-and-coming artists. With labels asking for a major slice of the royalty pie in exchange for sampling rights, taking pieces of several different songs, as some of the best sampladelic music does, would require more pieces of the pie than exist.
Like stockholders eyeing the day's ticker, owners of master recordings put a financial premium on each note and often care less about the artistic outcome of a "cleared" or paid-in-full sample. In this case, Funkadelic leader George Clinton is not a plantiff; rather the labels and publishing companies that own most of the Clinton/Parliament-Funkadelic catalog are suing 800 defendants over similiar allegations of "copyright infringement." The 6th Circuit Court ruling means that even a sampled note - "it is a physical taking rather than an intellectual one," the court stated - will be subject to major-label contracts. Before the ruling, many hip-hop artists felt freer to pull a drum kick from the JBs, a snare rip from Slayer, a cymbal crash from Ringo. A little filtering and digital sound-wave manipulation, and voila, they have placed another piece to their puzzle. But now, legally mixing and matching an artistic hodgepodge of sounds will be too expensive, as each note-holder clearly wants a premium and is willing to go to court for it.
"Songs that use many samples as a textural collage, that becomes impossible," says downhillbattle cofounder Nicholas Reville. "You end up to your neck in legal bills and give away more money per track than you'd be making."
Underground producers will be discouraged from raising their heads above the mainstream, and mainstream producers will only put the time and effort into negotiating for sampling rights if there's a guarantee of a "pop hook" involved, perhaps stifling the creative evolution of pop. This formula adds up to more of Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You" (famously dependent on the Police's "Every Breath You Take") and less of DJ Shadow's masterful montage Endtroducing... or the Beastie Boys' similarly sample-crazed Paul's Boutique. So say the critics of the ruling, who have been energized by this turn of events (some have asked the court to reconsider).
"Classic hip-hop albums would be impossible to release today," says downhillbattle's Reville, "Paul's Boutique, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. It ultimately stems from a misunderstanding of what all that stuff is that goes into it. It never comes up in visual art. Warhol and Picasso aren't real artists because they use collage and sample from different sources? That's been understood to be a form of high art for almost a century. It's a tragedy for music."
The Acid Wash
Downhillbattle, along with New York conceptual artist Michael Bell-Smith, rolled out an online contest to protest the ruling. The project, called "3 Notes And Runnin'," posts the Funkadelic riff in question and encourages musically inclined visitors to download 1.5 seconds of the jam and use it to make a wholly new 30-second composition. The contest, open until Monday, October 18, has brought in more than 155 entries, some so slick that organizers suspect some big-name producers are participating under pseudonyms.
"The idea for me was that you can take this sample and turn it into anything," says Bell-Smith. He runs through some of the more interesting submissions, including a version of "The Star Spangled Banner," another that remixes the other submissions into abstract submission, and another that loops and slows down the "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" sample to the point at which it "sounds like an animal dying," he says.
"I got a sense that a lot of these people were just kids on their laptops," Bell-Smith says. "Everyone has the ability to do this stuff. What shines through is not the sample itself but the process."
The 6th Circuit ruling was just in time to cross paths with a peak in music-making technology. Cheap software programs such as Sony's Acid and Apple's Garage Band are making sampladelic musicians of the everyman and everywoman, putting powerful, easy to use song-making tools on millions of laptops and desktops. The technology encourages users to have fun with the past, taking a snippet of Michael Jackson and looping it, playing it backwards and making it groan. Musicianship? Maybe not, but the programs could make thieves of thousands, if not millions, of bedroom musicians if they sample without permission and try to sell their wares.
Ironically, Sony owns the rights to most of Michael Jackson's catalogue. One arm of the company is concerned with protecting MJ's every note, while the other sells software that allows you to loop the King of Pop ad nauseam. (It's fun for the whole corporate family).
Meanwhile, critics say, big corporate media fish will continue to swallow the little producers who attempt to make a buck off a few-note sample. As it is, labels and artists who own their own master recordings (post-1971, for the most part) clearly have the upper hand when negotiating sample rights. They can say no. They can say a few thousand bucks. And they can say a million.
DJ and producer Nu-Mark, of critically noted hip-hop group Jurassic 5, says he's been confronted with sampling clearance costs of $5,000 to $20,000 for one snippet, "not counting paying a sample-clearance agency," he says.
"You sample a snare or hi hat and they want 10 grand and 20 percent of the publishing as well," says Nu-Mark, who recently released a mix-CD called Hands On. "When you're adding a vocalist and an MC over a sampled loop and they want as much as 75 percent of the publishing, you say, 'Wait a minute, what about my vocalist, my bass-line, my production, my keyboard section?' It gets out of control at a certain point."
Some in the music community are pushing for a system of "compulsory licensing" like that of music publishing. Any artist can "cover" or recreate another's music, so long as such compulsory fees guarantee a payday, usually about 4-8 and-a-half cents a song per unit sold. Critics would like to see a similar system set up for sampling. A compulsory price for a set time of sampling would be set up, and no individual negotiations would be necessary. Proponents of compulsory fees for sampling argue that the major labels and publishing firms would actually benefit: The affordability, they say, would lead to more producers going on-the-record with their samples (instead of taking bits of music now and hoping the lawyers don't come calling later), more amateurs getting into the game, and more income flowing as a result of the compulsory fees. It might seem like a no-brainer. But labels seem to have too much invested in the status quo of negotiating a king's ransom for a few seconds of sound. "We need new legislation for a voluntary licensing system used by the labels," says Reville.
The major labels seem to like things just the way they are. While proponents of freer sampling argue that taking a slice of the musical past is reverential and can revive careers, the labels say it's the sample-happy artists who are getting a boost. The value is in the hook. When DJ Danger Mouse earlier this year sliced up the Beatles' "White Album" and diced up Jay-Z's Black Album, then reconstructed the ingredients to great critical reception with his bootleg Grey Album, EMI, copyright holder of the "master" recording of the "White Album," wasn't too thrilled by the artistry.
"EMI is absolutely in favor of sampling," Jeanne Meyer, EMI North America's senior vice-president for corporate communications, told CityBeat after the Danger Mouse controversy unfolded in March. "There's a very well established way to get sampling and he did not participate. And we asked him to stop and he did."
But Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the major labels are using the courts to give them greater creative and pricing control over music. "Basically," he says, "the major labels have a sample-clearing system among themselves. If you're a smaller independent artist, you have no access to the mainstream channels of clearance and distribution. And the record stores won't carry your stuff unless it's cleared."
Indeed, the 6th Circuit Court, in explaining its decision, stated "the record industry, including the recording artists, has the ability and know-how to work out guidelines, including a fixed schedule of license fees, if they so chose."
They so chose - not.
Von Lohmann says the court overlooked the idea of "fair use" in copyright law. That is, the concept that educational use and fair comment and criticism is protected when pieces of copyrighted material are reproduced. "Sampling in some situations might be a fair use, but it's an expensive proposition for most artists who want to fight a fair use case," Von Lohmann says. "It's something that would cost you millions in legal fees before you got a fair answer."
Art as Raw Material
To reproduce, steal, mock, or twist? It's a question that dogs other media as well. Anne Bray, executive director of L.A. Freewaves, an artistic festival of art, film, and new media (November 5-27), says she's careful about which projects she puts on the group's website, freewaves.org, because about half the artists she showcases fear being ripped off. "Appropriation is just as strong as ever," she says. "It also is what inspires people."
In Hartford, Connecticut, organizers of a University of Hartford exhibition have taken down a doctored photograph due to copyright concerns. The artist, Damian Loeb, apparently used a 1990 Tina Barney photograph of three schoolboys and added the image of a girl performing oral sex on a fourth boy in the background.
"I do not ... regret the images I created, or the way in which they were made," Loeb told The New York Times. "When we as a society lose the ability to comment on what we see and to have an opinion on what we are exposed to, then we have all lost what makes us unique on this planet."
Using another artist's work as a basis for one's own is an age-old pursuit, says Bray. "Collage and assemblage have both always been in some form or another active throughout the whole century," Bray says. "People have used found objects forever in art."
The difference today, she says, is that the big media corporations have "a stranglehold on the arts."
No need to tell that to hip-hoppers and dance music producers. They know. But they also know how to play around the rules. Music software makes it easy to get a grip on complex manipulation of sound with filters, waveform editors, and effects. A woman's voice becomes a man's. A snare drum becomes a bass drum. And sampled sounds are not clones, but rather new life forms. The self-referential becomes self-realization.
In her pioneering electronic-music documentary Modulations, filmmaker Iara Lee puts the digital music revolution in a postmodern, postwar framework. She argues that the atom bomb is the ultimate metaphor for modern media arts - fragmented into a billion bitsy pieces that are then re-sampled and remixed for modern consumption.
"You just need a raw source," says Richard File of electronic music act UNKLE. "You implode it so it becomes your own."
Watch My Beat
Hip-hop and electronic dance music artists say the 6th Circuit ruling won't really change the way they make music, despite the fears of some activists. Many say they already assumed that samples that could be recognized would bring legal troubles, so they simply tweak and twist until the sounds are transformed.
"The few people I've talked to about it shook their heads and said, 'We're already moving away from straight sampling and spending more time messing-up samples," says Kylee Swenson, editor of Remix magazine. "I don't think it has anybody shaking in their boots, and they shouldn't."
Jason Blum, a contributor to Remix and one-half of electronic dance music stars Deepsky, says the sampling process almost always involves tweaking a sound beyond recognition. "You're going to put it through so many effects and processes that it won't be identifiable," he says.
Swenson says, if anything, the ruling will be good for digital music, encouraging producers to go live, be more creative, and keep their publishing royalties instead of giving half of them away for a three-note hook. By relying too much on sampling, she says, many acts are "limiting your creative abilities."
House music producer Roy Davis Jr., who's promoting his latest album, Chicago Forever (see "Groundswell," page 17), says it's sad too many young, self-proclaimed "producers" can't even play an instrument and thus rely on technology and the talents of others.
"A lot of these cats around here, they're called house producers and they can't play a note," he says. "And that bothers me. You want to make music with me and you can't play a note. I'm not going to let somebody ride my back, you know. I had this one kid, I was like, 'You play a bass line, I'll play the chord.' Couldn't even do it. This guy wanted to pop in a Reason loop. Like, 'Let's do this Reason bass-line, and I'll flip it around.' I was like, 'Nah.'"
What's more, the behind-the-scenes music market is flooded with "sample" CDs that provide popular sounds - drum kicks, bass-lines, synth riffs - in easy-to- sample form (often ".wav" and ".aiff" files). The CDs usually cost $20-$100 and come with copyright permission so their sounds can be popped into Reason or Acid music-making programs, looped, and turned into a song in no time. Who needs Funkadelic when you have an L.A. Riot - The Funky Drummers 2 loop disc?
"It's so easy to sit down at a computer with Acid and Garage Band and a grip of sample CDs and make music," says Blum of Deepsky, whose "Talk Like A Stranger" single was recently released. "It's not so much making music as assembling pieces, but the end product is music."
Sampling has been a part of modern music for decades. Postwar musique concrete sampled the sounds of the streets and atmosphere and funneled them into an entirely new experience, while dub reggae sampled itself into blunt-baked oblivion. Hip-hop DJs used vinyl as their palettes, taking drum breaks from James Brown and the Incredible Bongo Band and making them new. The modern sampler appeared in the '80s on an Ensoniq Mirage keyboard, which had a frustratingly small amount of memory on which to place low-grade bits of music. Still, pop began to sport the ornaments of sampling, from Art of Noise's "Close (To the Edit)" to This Is Big Audio Dynamite to the omnipresent broken-glass sound of '80s new wave. But the sampler really didn't come into its own until 1988, when Akai introduced its higher-quality, higher-memory S1000. It's no coincidence that some of the best hip-hop albums ever made, including the sampladelic 3 Feet High And Rising, Paul's Boutique, and It Takes a Nation of Millions ... were released in its wake.
In fact, some of the work of the Akai era is still being litigated today: "100 Miles and Runnin'" was released in 1990. The minute-long "Transmitting Live From Mars," from 1989's 3 Feet High And Rising, set a chilling guideline for sample-happy acts when a '60s pop group called the Turtles recognized a bit of their music, sued, and won. When rapper Biz Markie sampled Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" for his 1991 track "Alone Again," he was sued successfully, and followed it up in 1993 with All Samples Cleared!
Today it's hard to imagine the fresh new world of sampling creativity that faced hip-hop in the late '80s, where voices and sounds popped up to fill a void and contracts were something a rapper took out on a rival.
Still, the rules provide some thrill. Hip-hop, notes DJ Nu-Mark, is medium of appropriation and public space. Graf writers spray paint on other people's walls. Breakdancers use the sidewalk. Rap producers steal music and make it their own."It makes it more daring now to sample, which I kind of dig in a way," he says. "Sampling is risky."
Story notes: That year I had been following the trials and tribulations of Danger Mouse, a bedroom DJ who became an overnight sensation when he meshed the music of the Beatles' White Album with that of rapper Jay-Z's Black Album. I wrote a feature and a cover story on Danger Mouse after the Beatles' label slapped him with a cease-and-desist order for distributing 2,000 copies of his Grey Album CD. (Mr. Mouse would go on to become 1/2 of hit-maker Gnarls Barkley). Then this court ruling came down from Cincinnati. A closer look revealed that artists would need permission to sample even one note from a recorded work. It theoretically would put a new generation of "sampladelic" artists out of business. I had to pounce.
Nov. 6, 2003
By Dennis Romero
Cover photo by Steve Appleford
Losing the mural, it seems, was a sign of the times. In 2002, when the city renovated the recreation center at Stoner Park in West L.A., the last remnants of the Westside's Latino gang culture were told that the building's big Chicano-era mural would be temporarily removed to accommodate construction, but then returned. The big tableaux from the side of the building was an homage to the Mexican flavor of the neighborhood, and a point of homeboy pride.
But when Mayor James K. Hahn presided over ribbon-cutting ceremonies celebrating the completed makeover last summer, the mural was absent, and the homies still haven't seen it. (A council district field deputy who keeps his eye on parks in the area said he has no idea what happened to the artwork.) Today, a few survivors of the Sotel 13 gang, which has claimed the park since the early 1950s, still congregate at the rec center each weekday at 3 p.m. – like clockwork. (“You can set your watch by it,” says one cop.) But they're joined by yuppies walking little designer dogs and soccer moms tossing balls at their daughters' feet. Their barrio is clearly no more.
The story is the same across the Westside: The vida loca in neighborhoods such as West L.A.'s Sawtelle district, Venice's Oakwood area, and the Culver City-adjacent Del Rey barrio has turned into la dolce vita for high-income residents who are pushing westward. Thouhg LAPD still reports more than 50,000 gang members in the city, they have been shoved east by gentrification. For the Latino and black locals who called the Westside home for decades, dwindling gang membership is the inevitable result. Many neighbors and cops, of course, say good riddance (especially with gang crimes in West L.A. down 45 percent so far compared to last year). But some veteranos lament the end of an era, a time when taco-slangin' lunch trucks were always around the corner and eses cast authoritative shadows on the street.
“It's kind of sad in a way,” says Luis J. Rodriguez, author of the autobiographical Always Running: LA Vida Loca – Gang Days in L.A. “Chicanos have contributed a lot to these neighborhoods. For the most part, white people with money, they love their history, and they make sure everyone knows about it. But Chicanos don't have the same resources to put that history down.”
Diligent policing and injunctions against gangs in Venice and Del Rey have had an impact, sending many older, hardcore members to prison for decades at a time. But the most often cited reason for the demise of gangs west of the 405 is gentrification. Housing prices in the Sawtelle neighborhood and in Venice start in the low $500,000 range and inch up from there. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in those neighborhoods and in Del Rey starts at about $1,000 per month. While public housing remains an option (Venice and Del Rey are both home to federally funded apartment buildings), a 1997 U.S. Housing and Urban Development regulation pushed out many gang members living in such units. The “one-strike” rule stated that if any guest under a public housing beneficiary's control were to “engage in or facilitate criminal activity … within a three-block radius of the property” the resident would be evicted immediately. That put out many gang families, despite a successful ACLU challenge that softened the rule the next year.
“The enemy of any gang on the Westside is the loss of affordable housing, greedy landlords, abusive police practices, and lack of city support for people of color,” says Oscar De La Torre, founder of the Pico Youth and Family Center, an activities and counseling center for at-risk youth in Santa Monica. “The gang members are fighting the wrong fight, killing each other and pushing themselves out of the Westside.”
Flight to Inglewood
In Del Rey, a Los Angeles city barrio east of Marina del Rey and surrounded on its other sides by Culver City, the local Culver City Boyz are rarely seen at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing project they used to call home. “Cops kicked everybody out,” says Pedro Valenciana, a 27-year-old former Culver City member who now counsels dropouts at the Mar Vista Family Center. “They were kicking out whole families.”
The Culver City Boyz are thought to be the largest and most active of the Westside gangs, often implicated in violent capers, including the 1998 murder of Los Angeles police officer Brian Brown, who, along with his partner, had confronted two suspects after a fatal drive-by in Culver City. “The officers were outmatched by the gunmen, who were firing a Ruger mini-14 assault rifle and a semiautomatic attack weapon,” Capt. Gary Williams said at the time. (One suspect was fatally wounded by officers at nearby Fox Hills Mall. Another man was shot by police near Los Angeles International Airport after a pursuit. He lived.) The mall, in fact, is a haven for the Culver City Boyz and other gangsters, and early last summer, drive-by suspects in a U-Haul led police on a pursuit from Venice to the shopping center, only to be caught.
Twenty-one-year-old Greg Martin Jr. has seen the changes on Slauson Avenue, Del Rey's main thoroughfare. As a teen-ager, he came close to joining the gang, but the Mar Vista Family Center and its high school diploma program for dropouts helped him focus on attending Santa Monica College. “The gang has shrunk dramatically,” he says. “My grandmother lived down here for 30 years. I've been on this street all my life. Twenty of them lived on the street when I was 12. Now, I might see one once in a blue moon.”
For those growing up in the neighborhood, says Valenciana, joining the gang was a rite of passage. “You look outside your door, you see what's going on, and you want to be part of that,” he says. “Before you were a gang member, you were friends.”
But six years ago, the West Los Angeles College student moved to Inglewood – which is now home to many displaced Westside gang members. “Housing around here is so expensive,” Valenciana says. “People are starting to overcrowd these apartments.
“Gangs isn't the problem around here no more,” he continues as he surveys the dense Slauson Avenue corridor. “It's all these outsiders trying to buy everything in sight. Look at Playa Vista. Everything is going up, but people don't have a say. You have people coming in from other areas, but what happens to all the neighborhood people? It's a nice neighborhood, but in another eight to ten years, you won't see it like this no more.”
Venice for Life
In Venice, the transformation is even more obvious. Homes are fetching sometimes more than $1 million, and homies are being displaced every day. The area is claimed by Venice 13 and the Shoreline Crips, which coexist peacefully under a truce. Another gang, the Venice White Boys, died off decades ago.
“I know that the gangs are shrinking,” says a longtime Venice real-estate agent. “The property values have gone up, and people from New York are moving into Venice because it's affordable for them. I've been listing properties for between $580,000 and $600,000 average, where they used be worth $250,000 ten years ago.”
Alejandro Alonso, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California's Geography Department, is working on a paper about what he believes is a correlation between the city's gang injunctions and areas where property values are increasing. In Del Rey, an injunction – which generally bars members from congregating, carrying spray paint, or hanging out after 10 p.m. – covers the Culver City Boyz. A favored crime-fighting tool of Hahn while he served as city attorney, injunctions cover the Mexican-American Venice 13 gang as well as the African-American Shoreline Crips in Venice.
“Venice is one of the most gentrified gang areas I've ever seen,” Alonso says. “The reason I believe injunctions are imposed is because of the property values. All the injunctions are either next to prime real estate or in prime industry areas.”
Eighteen-year-old Julio Ruiz sits on the steps outside an apartment building in Venice's Oakwood area on a recent Saturday afternoon, pecking his girlfriend on the cheek. He lives with his mom and three siblings in a one-bedroom, $710-per-month apartment. He says the landlord could fetch at least $1,000 for the place and would be glad to see his family leave. But it's a good price, based on their move-in rent of seven years ago. “They're trying to kick us out,” says the Venice 13 member. “All my homies be moving to Inglewood.”
Ruiz, who's known on the street as “Indio” because of his dark, Indian-esque skin, says he recently went to prison for “dope.” He says police have been storming his house at 5 a.m. to conduct probation checks. He thinks this is part of a larger attempt to get the gang to leave for good. He's not leaving anytime soon, and he has plenty of animosity for the mostly white, professional newcomers in his neighborhood. “They come out here like Venice gang is nothing,” he says, “like we ain't shit no more.”
He points at a large, gleaming property across the street: “That used to be a black church. Now they made it into a white house.”
A few blocks south, Rick Mejia lives in the four-bedroom, two-bath Venice home his family purchased in 1963 for $17,500. These days, real-estate agents routinely knock on his door on weekend afternoons, saying, “You have a buyer waiting right now.” Their offer: $800,000. “They also send letters making offers,” says the 43-year-old. “We just don't want to leave.”
Mejia, who now has four children of his own, is a former Venice 13 member who started Venice Barrios Unidos in 1994 to help his homies leave the vida loca and find strength and respect in education, jobs and family. “It's by god's grace I'm not dead,” he says. “All I can do is show his spirit of kindness. We should be working together to make this world a better place.”
He remembers the old times when there were 100 core “V-13s” and at least half of those would congregate on weekends at nearby Penmar Park. (The “13” signifies a gang's “sureño,” or Southern California, roots.) All the neighbors, Mejia says, were friends. “There were more of us together, but it was mainly all the families that had all these kids, nephews, nieces, quincineras, weddings,” he says. “We fixed our cars up together. Everything we did was a community thing. Going to Penmar and having weekend rides. Always the black and brown together. That's what's missing now, the togetherness.”
Mejia, however, spent much of the '80s in prison, and after the birth of his son in 1980, he had plenty of time to sit and think about the future. “My children changed my life,” he says. “You can't do this no more. There was a lot of death, too, and it came from mainly Venice and Culver City.”
Santa Monica's Last Ghetto
The Santa Monica 13 gang has its rivalries as well. In the late '90s, it was the target of the Culver City Boyz. On October 27, 1998, four people were shot, two of them fatally, at a street clothing store called Westside on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. The dead included two men from Northern California who had merely been visiting the store's owner, their cousin. Although the suspects are still at large, suspicion centered around the Culver City set.
“I seen my cousin murdered right in front of me,” the store's owner, who was also hit by the gunfire, said recently. He said the police have since pegged him as a Santa Monica gang member, although he says he's not. “They labeled my family a gang family,” he says. “The police took pictures of me that are in their gang files.”
However, the number of active gang members is way down in Santa Monica's last remaining ghetto, the strip of “Pico Neighborhood” that runs between Pico Boulevard and the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10), between Lincoln Boulevard and the West Los Angeles border. The Santa Monica Lil Locos and the African-American Graveyard Crips also claim the area, but experts say there are less than 25 active gang members in Santa Monica. Yet another Santa Monica set, the 11th Street Chavos, became extinct by the '80s. The city's active gang membership “is significantly less, if not half, of what it was 10 years ago,” says Santa Monica Police Lt. Pasqual J. Guido, who credits police and community intervention.
Although some of the Westside gangs have survived by recruiting new immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, newcomers who seem to favor settling on the Westside, it hasn't been enough to overcome gentrification.
“These are some of the last black and brown communities in Southern California so close to the ocean,” laments De La Torre of the Pico Youth and Family Center. “People are being gentrified out. They're moving to Inglewood.
“Venice and Culver City were the real rivals,” he continues. “Santa Monica and Sotel were real rivals. Those were some of the last gang wars you're going to see. It's dropped off tremendously.”
The Los Angeles Police Department's West L.A. Division, home to the lowest crime rate in the city, mainly keeps its eye on two gangs: the Playboy Gangsta Crips, claiming turf along La Cienega Boulevard less than one mile south of tony Beverly Hills, and the Sotel gang, which is named for Sawtelle Boulevard and the adjacent neighborhood.
The Playboys have been around for at least 30 years, but their numbers started dwindling after the city hit the gang with an injunction in 1987. At the time, the gang had 200 members. Today the set, which roams mainly between La Cienega and Robertson boulevards and Pico Boulevard and Cadillac Avenue, has about 20 active members, according to police.
“Originally, it was a break-dancing crew,” says LAPD gang officer E. Saidenberg. “As crack cocaine became more prominent in the area, they saw the money-making potential and evolved into a criminal gang lifestyle. It caused them to become more violent.”
Saidenberg says the injunction and police vigilance – cops and community-service workers both claim some credit for the cleanup – have had a greater effect than rising rents. “Their income is not minimum wage,” he says. “They're making their income off robbing others, sales of narcotics and weapons, and things like that. Some of them make a lot more than you or I.
“Many have gone to prison,” he adds. “Others have been paroled or moved out of the area or wised up and moved on and started to raise family.”
There are a few other smaller gangs on the Westside's fringes, sets like Helms Street, Rancho Park, and Criminals for Life, that are but minor troublemakers. And in West L.A. proper, the Sotel 13 gang has a half-dozen core members these days, an expert says, although police contend there are about 25 active members and 225 registered members in the five-year-tracking “Cal Gang” state database.
“The Westside being a predominantly white area, they even told me through interviews that ‘this is not like South Central, where we blend in,'” says gang Officer Tony Umansky, whose job it is to keep a close eye on Sotel. “‘We stick out like a sore thumb,'” he quotes them as saying.
Police say that at least one Sotel O.G. (original gangster) in his 30s who has moved to the San Fernando Valley is recruiting at nearby University High School and even Webster Elementary School in an attempt to keep the gang alive. The result is a handful of pee-wees who stroll Stoner park in crisp, white T-shirts.
Their barrio – Sotel claims turf from the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Santa Monica border and from the Santa Monica (10) Freeway to Wilshire Boulevard – has changed into a yuppie mecca with plenty of high-end sushi bars and grocery stores. Neighbors and shoppers are often surprised to hear that the area even has a gang, but you can still see a little piece of the 'hood in Sotel's relentless tagging. The gangsters hit the Stoner Park bathrooms and walls with “Sotel X3.” Such graffiti is also found along Pico near the Santa Monica boundary, home to arch-rivals Santa Monica 13.
The shrinking Sotel set, some authorities believe, still has some criminal life left in it. In the summer of 2002, a triple homicide outside a Brentwood-adjacent Koo Koo Roo restaurant at Wilshire Boulevard and Bundy Drive shocked the neighborhood. According to police, four of the restaurant's employees were waiting for a bus shortly before 11 p.m. on August 27, when someone walked up and opened fire, killing three of the four: Mario Cruz, 24, Avelinao Cruz, 23, and Jorge Rodriguez, 22. The West L.A. residents “were well known in the Sawtelle area as ex-18th Streeters,” says Umansky, referring to perhaps the world's largest gang, 18th Street, which is spread throughout the region but calls the Pico-Union district near downtown ground zero.
He says one of the victims of the triple homicide had a brother who was fatally wounded following a dispute with a Soteler at Barry and Ohio avenues more than a year and a half ago. Since then, he said, the Koo Koo Roo trio stopped strolling while drunk and disrespectful through Sotel turf and started avoiding the area on their way home from work each night. But on that summer evening, even an attempt to catch a bus west to Santa Monica didn't save the three. The shooter came looking for them on the edge of Brentwood.
“These guys would actually go out of their way to go to Santa Monica to avoid the Sotel area to and from work,” Umansky says. “They would even try to hitch rides. They were obviously in fear and knew that Sotels didn't like them.”
The crime, however, remains unsolved, and there are three fewer boys in the 'hood. The area's geography makes some sense for gangland: The train tracks of the old Exposition right-of-way run along the south end. The homeless-magnet Veterans Administration Hospital anchors the north. Just south of Stoner Park, an industrial corridor, including a city trash-truck lot, runs along Olympic Boulevard all the way through to Santa Monica gang territory. But the area, which also includes Japanese-American residents with deep roots and Zen-inspired gardens, is irresistible to wealthier home-buyers.
“Back in the days, it was happening,” says a 19-year-old Sotel member Monster, kicking it at Stoner Park. “You used to see like 50 homies out here. There were all kinds of Mexicans around here. Now they're building condos that are all expensive 'n' shit.”
Monster looks back and points to where the Chicano mural once stood.“I think it should be there – the community did that,” he says. “They said they were going to put it back. They should.”
Story notes: Noting near million-dollar house prices in communities such as Venice and Sawtelle, I started to wonder what was becoming of longtime gangs in the areas. I talked to police gang experts and hit the streets, interviewing gang members themselves. They revealed that indeed many "OGs" were moving out of the areas, with many heading to Inglewood. When the story hit, many newer, moneyed Westsiders seemed surprised to learn that gangs claimed such tony turf.
Nov. 18, 2004
By Dennis Romero
At Glendale Boulevard and Second Street, you can see the crossroads of L.A., old and new. Immigrants from the Mexican state of Michoacan play the pre-Columbian handball game of tarasca in a dirt lot destined to soon sprout a 276-unit, five-story apartment building, mostly for the middle and upper-middle classes. On the hill above, the $45 million Visconti apartment complex is already going up rapidly, faster than the graffiti that lines the historic Toluca Yard, a long-abandoned Pacific Electric rail stop that's become home to the nation's only known tarasca court. Five blocks to the east, the towing skyscrapers of Bunker Hill reflect the setting sun, washing gleaming rays upon this gritty but shifting neighborhood just west of downtown. The area is patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, once the city's leader in homicide reports, and once described as the Fort Apache of the LAPD. Now, Land Rovers, Minis, and BMWs rub bumpers for parking space alongside the Medici, the Visconti's sister development, at Seventh and Bixel streets to the south. Times are changing faster than L.A.'s collective fear of the inner city.
“Downtown is going through one of the most interesting metamorphoses in its long, long career,” says Jack Kyser, chief economist and senior vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “People will be surprised at what it looks like in five years.”
The entire city seems to be shedding old skin, or at least renewing itself with the redevelopment equivalent of Botox. Predictably, moneyed interests are rah-rahing the new lofts, apartments, and condos, but critics are concerned that, while the city's growth will continue to be led by working-class immigrants, little of the new housing addresses their needs. “There's an enormous population pressure on L.A. because of immigration and because of the tremendous strengths of the local economy,” says USC associate professor of history Philip J. Ethington.
Mid- to high-priced residential developments, from downtown loft conversions to the massive Playa Vista development near Marina del Rey, are reshaping the metropolis in a major way. New downtown cultural monuments, particularly Staples Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, are a draw, and more are on the way, including a planned redevelopment of Grand Avenue between First and Third streets, a park between Grand Avenue and the Civic Center a few blocks east, a new police headquarters in Little Tokyo, and a $70 million Mexican American cultural center on Olvera Street to be called Plaza de Cultura y Artes. To the west, in Koreatown, plans are taking shape for a 4,200-student education complex at the site of the Ambassador Hotel and a 260-unit condominium-and-retail complex at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. At Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, a loft project plans to bring 60 units online. On the Westside, a $100 million residential-and-commercial project dubbed Palazzo Westwood is in the works. Alongside estimates that the region's population will grow by more than five million by the year 2050, all this development indicates the city is in the midst of what Ethington calls its “third wave” of growth.
“You see three big periods of growth,” he says. “The '20s, when some of the signal monuments were created – City Hall, Westwood, the big satellite areas, Hollywood. And then the next phase was postwar, with a vast expansion of the suburbs. Then you can look at this as a third major period of its growth, taking place now. But it's a different kind of growth. It's rebuilding. Developers are looking all over to reuse space.”
The development boom in these economically flat times could seem like a paradox, but there is a driving force: housing demand, including sky-high rents and even higher property values fueled by real estate speculation, retiring baby boomers' investments, and low interest rates. Los Angeles is at a point of maturity where political leaders and developers are thinking urban instead of suburban for housing solutions.
“Cities are truly ecosystems,” says developer Tom Gilmore. “They have an almost tidal nature in the way they grow and develop and spread. The tide goes out, reaches its natural limits, and then begins to look inward again.”
The biggest beneficiary of this reexamination is downtown, where 1,673 housing units have been etched out of old office buildings, hotels, and factories, and about 5,300 more are planned.
“Until a few years ago, downtown … seemed ancillary to the city … ,” declared The New York Times recently. “But that was then.”
Now, people like nightlife marketing guru Dave Dean call downtown's financial district home. He first moved to the area for a two-year stint in 1998, but found, back then, “it was like living on the moon,” he says. “There was nothing around.”
He moved back, to a loft-office space last year, and now finds seeds of nightlife at the Standard Hotel and the Golden Gopher lounge. Sometime next year he'll be able to get groceries at a Ralphs that's under development nearby on Flower Street. “What drew me downtown was, having lived in San Francisco, London, and New York, it really feels like a city,” Dean says. “And I can jump on the freeway and be anywhere in 10 minutes.”
This year, Dean is planning his fourth New Year's Eve mega-party, Giant Village, on the streets of downtown. He's expecting 12,000 revelers rocking out to the Killers live and dancing to DJs Paul Oakenfold, John Digweed, and Mark Farina on four blocks near Wilshire and Hope. “Now people are very comfortable with this area,” he says.
But, while party people will be living it up, the new look and feel of downtown doesn't seem accessible to all.
Rising Up, Rising Down
USC's Ethington says the greater community could face a price of upheaval – 1992-style – if it ignores minorities, the working class, and immigrants in its march toward redevelopment. Although he finds some good in the renewed housing's proximity to the urban core, Ethington says the city is still segregated. Research he's conducting at the moment finds that the city is more diverse than at any time since 1940, yet daily contact between whites and minorities remains less than ideal, with segregated enclaves remaining. The kind of high-priced housing that's happening with adaptive reuse isn't helping, Ethington argues.
“The poor and working class can't really win in this situation,” he says. “The development is all for profit. It's aimed at the affluent end of the market … . It's going to translate into more crowded living conditions for working people. This is all exciting and celebratory in a period of social peace, but there's no guarantee against another upheaval. The  Watts riots were sparked by terrible overcrowding and lack of attention to segregation and impoverishment. I'm not saying the outcome is necessarily going to be a riot, but somebody has to pay attention to the majority of the city that is not white collar.”
The professor notes that in many of the buildings in and around downtown, where rents usually start around $1,200, “there's a lot of attention paid to security and isolation. That doesn't speak well for a rubbing-shoulders scenario.”
While demand from young professionals is there – downtown lofts fill as ´´ soon as they open – more pressing housing demand in the region comes from the lower-income service workers and immigrants, who have a hard time with median home prices at more than $400,000 and median rents in the $1,100 range.
“The downtown thing is going to get a big haircut soon,” says urban scholar Joel Kotkin, the New America Foundation's Irvine Senior Fellow. “I think the lofts are too expensive, and I think there's going to be a limit to the demand. I'm not so sure you're building communities there.”
But boosters are happy the city's core, once barren save for the “urban pioneers” who braved aggressive panhandlers and car burglars for the privilege of living the loft life, is starting to take off, at least financially. Bankers and lawyers are leasing apartments near the financial district (Gas Company Lofts, the Pegasus building, and the nearby Medici), while artists are expanding from their traditional base near Alameda Street and Traction Avenue south to the industrial zone (Toy Factory Lofts – one's listed for sale at $710,000), north to Little Tokyo (Little Tokyo Lofts), and west into Skid Row and the Fashion District (Santee Court lofts). Restaurants from Ciudad to Pete's Café cater to the benefactor and City Hall sets, respectively.
“What we're seeing is very contextual,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “How do we bring life to our historic, underused resources?”
For preservationists, the redevelopment boom has provided an opportunity to reinvent historic structures, and there have been bitter losses, including the school district's plan to raze most of the Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown, site of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968. But there have also been countless successes, from the saved Belmont Tunnel, once home to the Red Car subway line, now neighbor to a planned housing development, to St. Vibiana's Cathedral, scheduled to reopen in February as a performing-arts center.
“This ensures some historic structures will stand for another 150 years,” says Trudi Sandmeier of the conservancy. “This is truly gratifying to see these buildings reborn.”
What's missing in the urban core, perhaps, is more nightlife. The conservancy's Broadway Initiative started in 1999 to help area landlords transform their offices into lofts and apartments under the then newly minted “adaptive reuse ordinance” that opened the door to such conversions. The initiative then set its sights on the preservation of Broadway's 12 historic theaters, the largest such concentration of movie and show venues in the nation, according to the conservancy. A few theaters, including the Orpheum and the Los Angeles, have already come back to life. Now the organization is conducting a market analysis to decide what reuse options would be best for some of the other venues. Ideas include nightclubs, comedy clubs, and restaurants.
“We're sort of right on the cusp of what I believe will be a massive transformation of Broadway,” says Sandmeier, the conservancy's Broadway Initiative coordinator. “We want to create a 24/7 scene downtown.”
Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, meanwhile, is helping to spearhead the 16-acre park planned for the area between the Civic Center and the Music Center. The space will also contain retail establishments, restaurants, and nightlife, and the city-county authority in charge of the project is already wooing retailers such as a Borders bookstore, Broad says.
“They're not trying to create a mall downtown, but they want to have unique types of retail,” he says. “They want to have life from 8 in the morning 'til past midnight every day. There will be a culture and civic district, which is Grand Avenue, then I see a convention/sports district, which is Staples Center and all they're planning to do to the south. Hopefully, we'll connect the two areas with some sort of fun transit.”
Indeed, the Community Redevelopment Agency is studying the possibility of creating a downtown trolley circuit using restored Red Cars or replicas.
But for the city, the story's more than just downtown. It's everywhere there's new housing being developed for a thirsty market.
Almost one year ago, L.A.'s adaptive reuse ordinance, originally limited to downtown, was opened to citywide use. The result is that moguls are also looking at residential redevelopment in places like Koreatown, where 260 units are planned for “The Wilshire at Western”; Hollywood, where two projects, including “The Lofts at Hollywood & Vine,” will bring 129 units to life; and Miracle Mile, where 45 units are planned for a building at Wilshire and Crescent Heights boulevards.
It's not all about adaptive reuse, either. Developer G.H. Palmer has eschewed the tax and code benefits of reuse, along with public funds, to create a privately bankrolled web of brand-new Italianate apartment buildings (the Medici, Visconti, et al.) west of downtown that are expected to bring 1,500 luxury rental units to the city. Nearby, a skyscraper at 1100 Wilshire Blvd. will be transformed into 250 housing units. Two blocks south, a Holiday Inn is being converted to hipster residences. And, a few blocks west, a Home Depot and Starbucks have planted roots.
“All of a sudden, these things start to fall into place,” says economist Kyser.
Palmer's buildings have been criticized, however, for their fortress-like positioning that isolates them from their largely Latino, working-class-immigrant neighborhoods. Critics also accuse Palmer of doing everything he can, including avoiding strings-attached public money, to sidestep affordable housing in his projects. His buildings are strictly “market rate,” which translates to expensivo.
Meanwhile, on the Westside, Playa Vista's Phase 2, approved by the City Council this fall, will include 2,600 housing units – apartments, condos, and homes – and retail space of 150,000 square feet slightly more than a mile from the ocean. Billed as “smart growth,” the project will include the kind of shopping and office-adjacent living that proponents spin as an “urban village.”
“It was the beginning of sort of a return to the suburban-village model, really the model that L.A. was built on,” says scholar Kotkin. “It's happening in a lot of areas – Studio City, Burbank, Pasadena – that are self-sufficient in a cultural sense. You work and live in the same five-mile radius. That's where we're going.”
While opponents argued that Playa Vista would generate too much traffic for already overburdened Westside streets, some urban planners and experts say there is no other way: The market must accommodate millions of newcomers and their housing needs by building on the last remaining open spaces, and reusing aging and historic structures.
“When we look back in 20 years on the increasing density in Los Angeles, we'll say it started here … ,” Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles told the Los Angeles Times after Playa Vista's approval.
Back From Hell
The notion of young professionals and middle-class families invigorating life within the city limits and arriving to the barrios in and around downtown would have been almost unimaginable more than a decade ago. The 1992 riots saw thousands of white, middle-class families flee the city, clogging freeways in SUVs, U-Hauls, and luxury sports cars as core urban neighborhoods still burned with rage.
That's the year developer Gilmore arrived from New York.
“In '92-'93, there were the riots and their aftermath, and the Northridge earthquake was about to hit,” he says. “The city was truly at its most fragmented. L.A. had set itself into these segregated mini-towns and was having trouble coming up with a civic notion of what it was anymore. Maybe that's when a place is ready for its greatest change.”
In 1993, a Time magazine cover story asked, “Is the City of Angels Going to Hell?” Thus, city fathers and mothers began to reflect at a time when the city's planning momentum seemed flat-footed and shell-shocked. Los Angeles was no longer the glamorous place to be, nor the immigrant-fueled metropolis of the future touted in previous years.
Developer Broad re-envisioned downtown as the region's cultural center and campaigned, sometimes at the behest of former Mayor Richard Riordan, to get the Museum of Contemporary Art and Walt Disney Concert Hall built, and he helped plant the seeds for the planned redevelopment of Grand Avenue. Although the arts institutions have become magnets for change, different city and business leaders seemed to be thinking in parallel. As the concert hall, the new cathedral, and Staples Center to the south were on the drawing boards, developers had their own ideas of a new downtown.
“It's sort of this amalgam of things that happen, and sometimes they're unrelated,” says Gilmore. “We were planning the ‘Old Bank District' at the same time Geoff Palmer was planning Medici. They were totally unrelated, but there was a similar notion on both our parts that something was about to happen.”
People like Gilmore, Downtown Center Business Improvement District President Carol Schatz, and architect Wade Killeler lobbied City Hall for a law that would allow them to convert abandoned and underused office buildings to lofts, apartments, and condominiums.
In 1998, anticipating the revitalization of downtown and City Hall's approval the next year of adaptive reuse, the New York transplant purchased three early 1900s buildings at Fourth and Main, structures that would become the cornerstones of his Old Bank District. Gilmore's also a principal in the purchase and redevelopment of the nearby El Dorado Hotel, the Palace Theater, and St. Vibiana's Cathedral. “When I look at the important things downtown, I look at Staples Center, Disney Music Hall, and us in the historic core,” Gilmore says. “Those are the three legs of the three-legged stool that make downtown finally have some sense to it.”
Inner-city developers know there's some distance to go. Opening up their projects more to street life, for example, means there must be safety, goods, services, and culture. Already, Gilmore says he's inundated with retailers who want to put shops, cafés, and bars of all types in the ground floors of his buildings. And this, he thinks, “makes the streets nicer, and so it drives your market even more.”
Real estate moguls see progress in downtown more than they see problems.
“Downtown has been neglected, but it's now going to get started on brighter days,” says Yuval Bar-Zemer, a principal in Linear City LLC, which developed the Toy Factory Lofts and is working on the Nabisco Building across the street in southeast downtown. “A street once covered with prostitutes and homeless is coming to life.”
For developers, the biggest obstacles to reinventing the city's housing stock – particularly for middle- and lower-income residents – are construction costs (materials and fuel are through the roof) and red tape. “The prices of construction are escalating dramatically,” Bar-Zemer says.
“It's not going to stop development at this point,” he says. “But there's going to be an adjustment in what people can build and how much of it they can build.”
Gilmore credits City Hall, particularly former Mayor Riordan and his Planning Commission, for kick-starting the city's housing boom by passing adaptive reuse. But he says bureaucracy continues to be daunting for those who want to turn, say, an old office into a new loft. Rules regulating doors, windows, electrical outlets, and fire-safety precautions abound and add to the bottom line.
“The city and state, unintentionally perhaps, over the course of decades, have created a system that makes dense urban living significantly more expensive than it needs to be,” Gilmore says. “For me to build new construction in downtown, it costs me $225 a square foot. Do the math. How can you ever create affordable housing in an urban environment at that cost?”
The city does, however, often require, or at least request, that redevelopments and new projects include some low-income units, and even the Westside's decidedly yup-scale Playa Vista Phase 2 will include a few $600-per-month units.
The question for the future is, will L.A. finally become a city and cease being a collective of communities?“I get a kick out of it when people say L.A. is this, and L.A. is that,” Gilmore says. “It's a work in progress, and it will never be finished.”
Story notes: I remember L.A. after the riots of 1992: It seemed as if anyone with a little money had fled town. The city felt depressed. Fast forward to 2004 and the inner-city -- downtown and environs -- was booming with an influx of the young and mobile. I had to note the changes.
Feb. 5, 2004
By Dennis Romero
Cover photo by Steve Appleford
The curb along San Julian Street is more than a metaphor, it's the real deal - the ultimate backstop for a life's downward slide, the end of the row, even for Skid Row. It's lined with runners hissing out drugs for sale, men taking naps, and newly minted homeless teens passing a joint. On a recent afternoon, the smell of skunkweed mixes with the vapors of human waste. The gutter is filled with murky puddles, scorched blunts, a pink backpack, and tattered trash bags full of abandoned clothing - signs of throwaway lives. A worker at the nearby Volunteers of America shelter says she tosses out seven bags of belongings every day because owners fail to retrieve them from storage. The city's weekly street-sweeping crews bring along a trash truck just to deal with all the curbside refuse on San Julian. "Rats as big as cats" prowl the blocks, as one social worker puts it. Some men walk barefoot through the filth.
Historian Mike Davis says the area's high-walled wholesalers, barbwire businesses, and cold, concrete living quarters constitute a "hard-scape" unfit for human beings. San Julian is the epicenter of a two-decade city policy to concentrate homelessness within the Row. "Skid Row is just a human landfill," Davis says, "and that should be intolerable."
It's the home of America's unwashed masses, but times are changing, and so is the Row.
The agency responsible for funneling the most public money - about $60 million annually - into county homeless shelters and services is now putting a cap on funding for Skid Row. No additional service centers. No additional shelters. No additional transient housing. Not in the next 10 years. Not with any of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's cash. Instead, this joint city-county agency, known as LAHSA, wants to see the homeless spread more evenly throughout the region.
Mitchell Netburn, the agency's executive director, says "the current thinking is we don't want it where building after building is just homeless people. We're 180 degrees from that of the past. We want services all around the county."
"What has been a policy of containment is turning into a policy of dispersal," says Mollie Lowery, executive director of Lamp, a drop-in center on San Julian.
But the idea of spreading the pain doesn't have the ring of truth for Skid Row service providers. "One of the reasons we have services downtown is that it's one of the only places you can put them," says James Howat, Los Angeles director of homeless services for Volunteers of America, which has its Drop-In Center at 628 S. San Julian St. "NIMBYism is a real problem for providing services to the homeless and those being released from prison. It's not even NIMBY [Not In My Backyard], it's NOPE - Not On Planet Earth. People don't want it."
Historian Davis agrees. "There are far more powerful forces arrayed against dispersal of the homeless," he says. "Suburban governments are passing laws essentially outlawing the homeless. It's forcing a lot of people from the periphery to the center."
In fact, advocates say homelessness is growing downtown. The suburbs won't have them, redevelopment is threatening the Row's housing stock, and the slumping economy is kicking some workers to the curb. (In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported a 13 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter - with nearly a third of that demand going unmet.) "There needs to be more services, not less," says James Bonar, executive director of Skid Row Housing Trust, one of two nonprofits responsible for most of the single-room-occupancy buildings in the area.
Developer Tom Gilmore, among the first to see the profit potential in the historic buildings of Skid Row, is one of 10 politically appointed commissioners who decide where LAHSA aims its sizeable budget. His trio of airy, elegant loft buildings at Fourth and Main streets contrasts with the cardboard shantytowns south and east.
He sees some good in gentrification. "In this case, the redevelopment in the area is focusing energy on the issue of homelessness, rather than having it be swept under the rug as it has for the last 20 or so years," Gilmore says.
Still, with some of the area's old hotels and potential housing stock being converted for middle-class use, it sounds like the "joint powers" that be are putting the brakes on Skid Row, or at least scattering the homeless.
"The policy of containment has been an abject failure," says City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, whose district includes a good piece of the Row. "The area's future is one where we begin by changing the nomenclature from Skid ´´ Row to Central City East and create a vision for that area. I think the Central City East portion of downtown is an area that is striving to reclaim its neighborhoods. It's a place where people can live and work with a renewed hope for the future."
Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents most of downtown, agrees. "It's been a magnet for people descending in life or just let out of jail to congregate," she says of Skid Row. "As far as a policy of containment, that's not a policy anymore."
The Row Goes Upscale
New York transplant Gilmore sparked interest in Skid Row as more than just a homeless zone when, in 1998, he purchased three early-1900s buildings at Fourth and Main, converted them to lofts, and christened the northwest corner of the Row as the Old Bank District. Since then, he's been a principal in the purchase of such nearby mainstays as the El Dorado Hotel, the Palace Theater, and St. Vibiana's Cathedral - all slated for redevelopment. "All of those buildings were empty and didn't require relocation or dislocation, and our future plans don't involve relocation or dislocation," Gilmore says.
But Councilwoman Perry has said other developers are planning to turn some transient housing (or "SROs" for single-room occupancy) buildings into "market rate" yuppie lofts and apartments, pulling available beds from the Row.
Much of the redevelopment is encouraged by state and city "adoptive reuse" tax and code breaks intended to foster inner-city preservation. "On one side of their mouths, politicians say we need more affordable housing," argues homeless advocate Alice Callaghan. "On the other side, they're shoveling money to these developers."
Along with Gilmore Associates' considerable moves, the owner of the Frontier Hotel at Fifth and Main streets has bought the adjacent Rosslyn Hotel and hopes to convert both buildings into "market rate" dwellings. The Morrison Hotel near Staples Center, long a spot for transients, is up for sale. The Cecil Hotel, another single-room-occupancy haunt for the sometime-homeless, has undergone $4 million in renovations and is targeting a Euro-traveler market. A loft project at Seventh and Los Angeles streets, Santee Court, is billed by its developer as "the largest adaptive-reuse project currently underway in the City of Los Angeles. It will transform nine historic garment buildings on the northern edge of the Fashion District into a contemporary downtown neighborhood." The Little Tokyo Lofts near Fourth and San Pedro put the young and upwardly mobile in the heart of Skid Row.
"When I saw a coffee shop on San Pedro between Fourth and Fifth with outdoor tables I knew there was a big change coming," says Howat of Volunteers of America.
At Pete's Café and Bar at Fourth and Main, customers can step into a high-ceilinged oasis with a broad, sunlit view of the heroin dealers down the street and order $11 curried-chicken sandwiches. The mayor and other city power players have been known to dine here, but don't come near if you're homeless. "You stop outside Pete's Café to tie your shoes, and you'll be moved along," says Callaghan.
To be fair, Gilmore says that nearly half his employees downtown are homeless or formerly so. But critics say that if the redevelopment continues, there will be a lot more folks without roofs over their heads. Experts say that, on any given night, there are more than 10,000 homeless and transients on Skid Row, and there are nearly 8,000 beds, including single-room-occupancy hotels, low-income housing, transitional homes, and shelters, leaving as many as 2,500 to curb it alfresco.
"We'll have to build a costly shelter system because we encouraged developers to line their personal pockets by purchasing distressed buildings on Main Street," Callaghan says. "The city in the past did everything they could to protect that housing, and has now abandoned that plan. I am not opposed to developing downtown. But I am opposed to taking the irreplaceable housing of the poorest of the poor and giving it to people who have options. It makes good economic and social sense to save the housing on Skid Row."
Advocates claim the housing stock is already being reduced by redevelopment and speculation.
"We tried to buy the Rosslyn, but we were outbid by a landlord who wants to turn the building into condos," says Bonar of Skid Row Housing Trust. "It sold for more than $5.5 million. We were prepared to offer very close to that. They said our price was OK, but they didn't like our terms.
"Buildings around here are getting a whole lot more expensive to buy, to the extent we can find them," he continues. "They're waiting for anyone with a big checkbook."
Meanwhile, recently empowered business improvement districts representing the city's toy, fashion, and flower industries are employing private security forces - homeless people call them "the shirts" because of their bright vests - and putting pressure on police and city leaders to get the bodies and trash away from their businesses.
"The lofts are coming in, and businesses are coming in, and the homeless are all going to jail," says homeless activist Ted Hayes.
Some foresee the homeless being pushed east into the Los Angeles River, where they've been before, or toward South Los Angeles, already home to some services, such as an emergency winter shelter at 3804 Broadway Place. But no one knows for sure where they'll all go if Skid Row becomes Melrose Place.
A History of Containment
Stoned and giggling, 19-year-old Amy Conrad reclines against a brick wall along San Julian. Just weeks ago, she came to Los Angeles from Austin, Texas, with Hollywood hopes, but she quickly hit the curb. Her girlish smile - she barely looks 15 - is marred by stained teeth, and her golden hair is tangled and dirty. "I had an apartment in Austin until my mom took it away," she says, dressed in black and perched atop bagged belongings. "She basically treated me like a child. Does that sound bad, that I'd rather be out here?"
Here at the curb, out-of-town homeless come to bask in warmer days, and just-released county inmates are dropped off twice a day. "It's a dumping ground for the jail system," says Kathryn Seiffert of Volunteers of America.
Two San Julian drop-in centers - one currently closed for renovation - provide "high-tolerance" services for transients as well as parolees, addicts, and the mentally ill: those deemed to be "service resistant." The street's not just an open-air drug bazaar, it's an outdoor halfway house that was, in part, encouraged by city and county authorities who at one time wanted to contain the worst of the worst.
In 1985, the Los Angeles Men's Place opened on the west side of the street. It's now a co-ed drop-in center called Lamp that's closed for remodeling. Then, in 1999, the Volunteers of America Drop-In Center - providing laundry, storage, and activities for 600 people a day, not to mention beds for 87 who sleep in eight-hour shifts - solidified San Julian's status as the end of the line. Not so ironically, the historical figure of Julian the Hospitaller is known in Catholic lore as the patron saint of murderers, travelers, hotel keepers, and clowns. His memorial day is February 12.
Homeless services have been in the Skid Row area since the 1880s: In 1896, Volunteers of America also rolled a "mission wagon" for alcoholics in the area. As turn-of-the-century hotels along Main Street and east along Sixth and Seventh deteriorated after World War II, transients moved in. During the 20-year reign of Mayor Tom Bradley, which started in 1973, his administration made it a policy to contain homelessness to the more than 50-square-block Skid Row area that runs from Main to Alameda, from Third south to Eighth. The rationale was to centralize services and encourage single-room-occupancy conversions of hotels for low-income living. Councilmembers were "hysterical about sending homeless to their districts," Davis says. "So the Bradley administration policy of containment and centralization of services was a response to a de facto political situation where nobody else wanted to deal with the homeless."
Then, says Davis, "In the early '90s, the city took to closing down market outlets and liquor stores where cheap wine was sold on Skid Row. In the absence of cheap wine, crack cocaine began flooding into the Row. And Skid Row probably became the area with the largest concentration of crack-cocaine users in the country."
Dispersing the Homeless
Deputy City Attorney Dena Sohn remembers that in the '90s things got so bad around San Julian, "there were people camped out in the lobby and in the bushes" of the LAPD's nearby Central station at Sixth and Wall streets.
When crack hit the Row, violence followed, and it continues today. On November 16, 2002, a man was fatally stabbed in the 600 block of San Julian. Four days later, as part of LAPD Chief William J. Bratton's crackdown on so-called quality-of-life crimes, police, California Highway Patrol officers, U.S. Marshals, and even FBI agents swarmed Skid Row as part of "Operation Enough." Nineteen people were collared on suspicion of felony crimes, and authorities rounded up another 89, mostly for parole violations and outstanding warrants. But the American Civil Liberties Union sued the LAPD for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of Skid Rowians by charging through and casting too wide a net. The ACLU won, and the sweeps were over.
But, lately, the LAPD - responding to complaints by business owners and residents - has been sweeping homeless encampments, this time arresting people on suspicion of sleeping on the sidewalks, a municipal code violation. "Do the loft dwellers file complaints?" says Deputy D.A. Sohn. "Yeah, and we have to respond to those complaints. They've changed things in that respect."
During their sidewalk sweeps, police drag along LAHSA social workers, who offer the homeless shelter and services in lieu of arrest but are usually rebuffed. Police say they check with local shelters to verify that beds are available - but this is usually at dawn, at the end of the capacity overnight sleep shifts. "Every night that I've seen on the logs, there are beds available," says Capt. Blake Chow of the LAPD's Central Division.
"So much is done to give people alternatives," adds Sohn. "To say there are no beds is untrue."
But the numbers don't add up, and two weeks ago, Callaghan, of Skid Row's Las Familias del Pueblo community center, put the LAPD's claim of shelter availability to the test, distributing fliers saying that LAHSA had beds and services available to those who needed them. "So many people ran over to LAHSA, they had to put someone in the lobby to tell people to go away," she says.
LAHSA's Netburn admits that emergency winter shelters, for example, have been "over 100 percent capacity since November 30 - 865 beds. If we can get a larger number of beds available, a larger number of people on the street would use them," he says. "What we were saying was, most nights we can get beds for most people who we approach - for that small pop of people we do encounter - not easily, but we can do it."
The ACLU sued the LAPD over the sidewalk-sleeping citations, but just last week it lost. The organization is pondering an appeal.
In any case, Skid Row observers on all sides - homeless advocates, City Council representatives, police - agree that law enforcement isn't the answer, and that sweeps are like playing musical chairs with the homeless. The geography changes, but the problem remains.
Skid Row of the Future
Davis and Hayes agree that the homeless should have a voice in the changing nature of Skid Row.
"The city should sponsor the creation of a council elected by people on Skid Row so they can actually advise the city on policy and report honestly to the public on the conditions on Skid Row," says Davis. "Another 10 academic studies or 15 stories in the L.A. Times based on cops or social workers won't do it. It's time to empower a group of Skid Row residents. At the end of the day, they're the ones who know the truth."
"A lot of people in this area want to work," says 61-year-old Jeff Spiller, standing at the curb on San Julian as he waits for a bus to take him to a temporary winter shelter in South L.A. "You can't get rid of the homeless here unless you got a heart to help the homeless. Some people want help, and I'm one of the ones who wants help."Callaghan wants the city, county, and developers to allow Skid Row to fulfill its promise of housing the poor and giving a helping hand to the downtrodden. "What the police and City Hall want to talk about is that there are people who are going to be homeless no matter what. But we don't know that, because we don't have housing for everyone."
Story notes: In the wake of a new wave of gentrification downtown, I started talking to my editors about how L.A.'s Skid Row was still as bad as ever. I pointed them to San Julian Street, which was essentially an open-air drug market, just a block south of the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division. CityBeat editor-in-chief and I went down to San Julian, mouths agape at what we saw. He took photos and I took notes. This story ran before Steve Lopez turned his pen to the area (resulting in a book and movie), and before LA Weekly published a series on Skid Row.