By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES – Only miles from the scenic vistas and celebrity mansions that draw sightseers from around the globe — but a world away from the glitz and glamour — a bus tour is rolling through the dark side of the city’s gang turf.
Passengers paying $65 a head last Saturday signed waivers acknowledging they could be crime victims and put their fate in the hands of tattooed ex-gang members who say they have negotiated a cease-fire among rivals in the most violent gangland in America.
If that sounds daunting, consider the challenge facing organizers of LA Gang Tours: trying to build a thriving venture that provides a glimpse into gang life while also trying to convince people that gang-plagued communities are not as hopeless as movies depict.
“There’s a fascination with gangs,” said founder Alfred Lomas, a former member of the Florencia 13 gang. “We can either address the issue head-on, create awareness and discuss the positive things that go on in these communities, or we can try to sweep it under the carpet.”
Several observers have questioned the premise behind the tours, and some city politicians have been more blunt.
“It’s a terrible idea,” City Councilman Dennis Zine said. “Is it worth that thrill for 65 bucks? You can go to a (gang) movie for a lot less and not put yourself at risk.”
More than 50 people brushed aside safety concerns for Saturday’s maiden tour to hear how notorious gangs got started and bear witness to the struggling neighborhoods where tens of thousands of residents have been lured into gang life.
The unmarked chartered coach wound its way through downtown. The first sight was a stretch of concrete riverbed featured in such movies as “Terminator” and “Grease,” where countless splotches of gray paint conceal graffiti that is often the mark of street gangs and tagging crews.
After that, it was on to the Central Jail, home to many a thug, past Skid Row’s squalor and homeless masses and into South Los Angeles, breeding ground for some of the city’s deadliest gangs.
Motoring through an industrial area, the bus enters the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, close to the birthplace of the Crips and current home to Florencia 13, a Latino gang that was accused by federal prosecutors of racist attacks against black residents.
Gray warehouses soon merge with single-story stucco homes as the bus heads south. Few gangsters risk hanging out on street corners, as local rules mean they could get arrested even for congregating, but graffiti on walls, road signs and convenience storefronts betray the presence of Florencia 13 and other gangs.
Sieglinde Lemke, 46, an American Studies professor from the University of Freiburg in Germany, said she enjoyed the opportunity to interact with former gang members.
“It brings to life the class divisions you have in America,” she said. “This is an area that’s blocked out of my mental map of the States. It’s important to get a firsthand account of the area.”
Junior high school teacher Prisca Ricks, 37, was of two minds about going on the tour after reading critical blog comments about it being “ghettotainment.”
But ultimately, she was pleased she went, and said she appreciated the focus on trying to help the community.
Lomas, 45, a respected activist who has worked with the faith-based Los Angeles Dream Center to distribute hundreds of tons of food to low-income families across the inner city, left gang life about five years ago.
He stresses the aim of his nonprofit company is to bring jobs to communities along the route and to reinvest money through micro-loans and scholarships, though he’s not sure how the tour will accomplish that. He also eventually wants to start a gallery and gang museum.
He said the tour will create 10 part-time jobs, mainly for ex-gang members working as guides and talking about their own struggles and efforts to reduce violence. The tour is initially scheduled to run once a month.
No tour quite like this runs elsewhere in the country. Chicago has a prohibition-era gangster tour, and another Los Angeles group buses people to infamous crime scenes, including the Black Dahlia murder.
Lomas faces a quandary as he tries to show the troubled history of the area once known as South Central, before politicians renamed it South Los Angeles in 2003 in an attempt to change its deep association with urban strife.
The tour is billed as “the first in the history of Los Angeles to experience areas that were forbidden.” But tour leaders don’t want it to be voyeuristic and sensational.
“We ain’t going on no tour saying, ‘Look at them Crips, look at them Bloods, look at them crack heads,’” said Frederick “Scorpio” Smith, an ex-Crip helping narrate, who helped broker the cease-fire among the Grape Street Crips, 18th Street, F13 and the East Coast Crips.
Out of sensitivity to residents, passengers are banned from shooting photographs or video from the bus. The only place that is allowed is near the end of the trip, when they can step off the bus and film an outdoor area where graffiti is allowed.
Stretches of the tour have almost nothing to do with gangs, but instead exploit famous chapters of violence in the city’s history, such as a deadly 1974 shootout between police and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the site of the riots that followed the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating.
If done right, the tour could highlight the decades-long struggle to solve the gang problem, said civil rights lawyer and gang expert Connie Rice.
Gang crime has fallen in recent years, but groups continue to grow and gain influence. Over the past quarter century, officials in Los Angeles County have spent $25 billion fighting gangs only to see the number of gangsters double to as many as 90,000 and a six-fold increase in the number of gangs.
“If it is carried out well and carefully and carried out with the consent of the community, it could teach people about the very entrenched culture that gangs now have in Los Angeles,” Rice said.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry said she would rather tourists see the development potential in the neighborhoods that make up part of her district. About two years ago, she organized her own tour in the area for about 200 real estate agents and business representatives, resulting in the development of buildings with homes and businesses.
“I’d prefer we focus on showing the community in a positive light,” she said.