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South L.A. doesn’t need saving, but it can save us

July 10, 2016

OpEd By Joe Mathews : sfgate – excerpt

he old question about South Los Angeles, back when it was defined by gangs, poverty and the worst urban riots since the Civil War, was: “How can we save it?”

Today, the question is: How can South Los Angeles save us?

South L.A. now embodies California’s greatest possibilities — and struggles. And at an especially angry and pessimistic time in the United States, South L.A. offers an optimistic, tough-minded narrative of determined, steady improvement.

South L.A. is the closest thing we have to an urban success story, and the furthest thing from a fairy tale. Crime, despite recent upticks, is way down, access to health care is improving, schools are better, homeownership and housing prices are up, transportation and arts and food options are multiplying. Major new developments are arriving — bringing promise and peril.

Working-class model

South L.A., encompassing 30 very different neighborhoods in the city and county, is akin in size (nearly 50 square miles) and population (850,000) to San Francisco. But it is sometimes described as L.A.’s Oakland. It’s a poorer place being changed, for better and worse, by its residents’ efforts and by proximity to the wealth and spillover housing demand of L.A.’s booming downtown.

How do South L.A.’s people and businesses make sure they don’t become exiles from their own success, driven away by rising costs? That question resonates. South L.A. is the largest working-class place left in coastal California.

If it can figure out a way to remain such, then it could provide a crucial model for a state increasingly divided between some of the nation’s most affluent residents and its largest population of poor people.

Many of South L.A.’s bigger developments come with “community benefits agreements” and local hiring guarantees that are popular among elected officials. But it remains to be seen whether such agreements lead to enduring improvements, or whether this one-deal-at-a-time approach undermines more thoughtful planning and development…

The two most profound changes needed in South L.A. involve not physical, but human, capital.

First, South L.A. stands to benefit economically from statewide efforts to help people clean up their criminal records by expunging or reducing nonviolent felony convictions. Second, if this country ever got long-overdue immigration reform and South L.A.’s undocumented workers and entrepreneurs could expand their horizons and businesses, South L.A. might be unstoppable.

Spirit of self-preservation

South L.A.’s reputation, particularly in mainstream media, hasn’t yet caught up with its more complicated reality. But that may be about to change, thanks to two high-profile political campaigns. Steve Barr, founder of a charter school network with many South L.A. campuses, is challenging the incumbent mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, next year. In 2018, Antonio Villaraigosa, who during his tenure as mayor of Los Angeles focused heavily on South L.A., is likely to run for governor.

An updated narrative of South L.A. is vital to the region’s ability to protect itself and its people from developments and changes that might threaten its progress, or displace its people. Vast and diverse South L.A. is on the rise, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of its example.

Because if South L.A. can make it, there’s hope for all of us…(more)

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