Monday, January 18, 2010

Hood Tours

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LOS ANGELES — The tour organizer received assurances, he says, from four gangs that they would not harass the bus when it passed through their turf. Paying customers must sign releases warning of potential danger. And after careful consideration, it was decided not to have residents shoot water guns at the bus and sell “I Got Shot in South Central” T-shirts.

Borrowing a bit from the Hollywood star tours, the grit of the streets and a dash of hype, LA Gang Tours is making its debut on Saturday, a 12-stop, two-hour journey through what its organizer calls “the history and origin of high-profile gang areas and the top crime-scene locations” of South Los Angeles. By Friday afternoon, the 56-seat coach was nearly sold out.

On the right, Los Angeles’s biggest jail, “the unofficial home to 20,000 gang members in L.A.,” as the tour Web site puts it. Over there, the police station that in 1965 served as the National Guard’s command post in the Watts riots. Visit the large swath of concrete riverbed taken over by graffiti taggers, and later, drop in at a graffiti workshop where, for the right price, a souvenir T-shirt or painting can be yours.

Alfred Lomas, 45, a former gang member and the creator of the tour ($65, lunch included), said this drive-by was about educating people on city life, while turning any profits into microloans and other initiatives aimed at providing gang members jobs.

But aside from its unusual logistical challenges — the liability waiver describes the tour as “inherently dangerous” and warns of the risk of death — the venture has also generated debate about its appropriateness. Chicago has a tour of Al Capone sites and Las Vegas has one devoted to the mob — but this gangland lore is still happening.

“Everybody says we are the gang capital of the world, and that is certainly true, no denying that,” said the Rev. Gregory Boyle, who has spent decades trying to steer people out of gangs into legitimate work. “It’s hard to gloss over that. But there are two extremes we always need to avoid. One is demonizing the gang member, and the other extreme is romanticizing the gang.”

Others fear that the tour, which initially is to be conducted monthly, may conjure up the so-called slum tours of shantytowns and impoverished areas of Rio de Janeiro and Soweto, South Africa, which bring tourists close, but not too close, to misery, with questionable benefit.

Jan Perry, the Los Angeles councilwoman who represents a large area covered by the tour and conducts her own tours for prospective business investors, said she was wary of the endeavor because its gang connotations could discourage investment.

“It should focus on deliverables, and I consider a deliverable a grocery store,” she said.

But Mr. Lomas’s supporters, including associates of the Dream Center, a Christian-based social service center where Mr. Lomas works driving a food truck for the needy, said the tour would raise awareness of needs in depressed communities.

Kevin Malone, a former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who came to know Mr. Lomas through the center and is one of the financial backers of the project, said he might accept the criticism “if it was somebody other than” Mr. Lomas.

“But I know the guy’s heart,” he said. “He is not taking anything out. All he is doing is serving and giving. If that is exploitation, I hope somebody does that to me.”

In true tour-business form, LA Gang Tours has its share of hype, starting with its rather imprecise name.

The odds of seeing an actual gang member on the street at the appointed hour — Saturday morning — are low, though Mr. Lomas said four or five members will be on the bus to keep watch and offer their stories. Many of the sites, like the location of the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in 1974, take a lot of explaining to link with contemporary gangs (Mr. Lomas’s research was done on the Internet and by talking to old-timers.)

If the gang territory highlighted seems heavy on Mr. Lomas’s old stomping grounds in the Florence district, it is because it overlaps with turf prominent in the history of gangs, including his own, Florencia 13, one of the largest and most notorious.

Mr. Lomas rejected initial plans to drive through two housing projects, a concession, he said, to critics concerned it would be insensitive.

To some, it is no wonder that, in a city known to have more street gangs than any other, as well as a close association with theme parks, somebody would come along and tap the tourism potential of gang culture.

“What the heck, market what you got,” said Celeste Fremon, who writes the criminal justice blog Witness L.A. and has studied the city’s gangs.

Although she disputed whether several of the sites had a solid gang association, she said, “if it makes money for a good cause, more power to them.”

Mr. Lomas, who wears long-sleeved shirts to conceal his old gang tattoos, including one slithering up his neck over the collar, makes no apologies for what he calls an unconventional attack on the gang problem. He has little patience for traditional gang counselors and programs that he believes have done little to curtail gang membership.

“The war on gangs in L.A. is like the Vietnam War,” he said, giving an unofficial preview tour to a reporter and photographer. “The Americans thought they had all the answers and were very arrogant in their approach, and assumed they would defeat these poor peasant people. Like that, this is actually an unconventional war and you are going to have to approach it in an unconventional way.”

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