Los Angeles Gang Tour Puts A Twist On Drive-Bys

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Ben Bergman/NPR

Alfred Lomas used to be in the Florencia 13 gang before he founded LA Gang Tours. Now, in addition to running the tours, Lomas also manages a mobile food bank.

Tourists in Los Angeles can now purchase a window into the world of gangs. For $65, LA Gang Tours will provide transportation to some of the city's most notorious gang destinations, lunch and a graffiti demonstration.

In Los Angeles there have long been star tours where people can get a peek at the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

But aside from being the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles also has the more dubious distinction of being famous for gangs.

Now there's a tour to show that side of the city — LA Gang Tours.

For $65 organizers promise a chance to "experience areas that were forbidden until now."

So Close, Yet So Far Away

On the tour's inaugural run, passengers settled in for a new experience.

"You go to Paris to see things and understand that culture ... and this is so close by," says Bert Rietveld, who is Dutch but has lived in Los Angeles for years. Still, he has never ventured into South Central.

"Probably because I always thought, well, you can't really go there on your own," Rietveld says. "It seemed too dangerous. I once took a wrong turn off the freeway, and I ended up in some neighborhoods where I thought [I'd] better get out of here as quickly as possible."

Safely seated on the air conditioned bus, Rietveld is eager to learn the ins and outs of thug life.

"What are the Crips, what are the Bloods, what is grafitti?" Rietveld asks. "I had never thought about what is graffiti. I just thought it was weird paintings on the wall."

Another tour passenger, Daniel Auld, is a young backpacker from Australia. He has been traveling for nine months.

"I spent a lot of time in India, and I lived in an orphanage for a few months on this trip, so it's just a natural extension to see this part of L.A," Auld says.

'Ghettotainment'

Tour guide Alfred Lomas is covered in tattoos from his neck on down. He used to be part of the Florencia 13 gang, but he has turned his life around and now works to stop gang violence.

Lomas sees his tour as helping to reach that goal. He says the steep admission fee will go back into the community, and by bringing outsiders into gang communities, he's encouraging rebuilding and investment.

Lomas certainly isn't without his critics, who have said this tour amounts to exploitation. As some have put it, this is "ghettotainment."

In response, Lomas nixed his original plan to take the tour through housing projects and give passengers a T-shirt reading "I Got Shot in South Central" after they would have been shot at with water guns.

Still, Lomas uses the supposed danger of the tour as a marketing tactic and encourages passengers to get their picture taken with the ex-gang members he has recruited to sit next to the tourists on the bus.

"If you take a Hollywood tour, you'll probably see Brad Pitt's house, but you'll never really get a chance to take a picture with Brad Pitt," Lomas says. "Here, you have an opportunity to take pictures, to meet and interface with individuals that are influential in their gang communities but have made that effort to change."

Relatively Normal

Finally, the bus departs and Lomas takes his passengers over the Los Angeles River, which he explains is a favorite target of gang members' graffiti.

Then it passes the huge Los Angeles County jail.

"If we look to our right, you will see what is known as the unofficial jail to over 120,000 gang members," Lomas says. "I can safely say that everybody on this bus with gang intervention has been housed there at one time or another, including myself."

It's around here that the tour is ground to a halt by the most Los Angeles of experiences — bad traffic.

Lomas doesn't miss a beat. He pops in a DVD on the bus' entertainment system. It's a documentary of Los Angeles gangs.

It's all quite meta — watching a movie about Los Angeles gangs while on a tour that is supposed to show riders Los Angeles gangs.

Midway through the movie riders are interrupted by reality.

"If you look to your right, you'll see Compton Avenue with a bullet hole through it," Lomas says.

Aside from the bullet hole, this looks like a pretty unremarkable working-class neighborhood on a quiet Saturday morning. Almost no one is on the street. There's a Starbucks a couple blocks away.

Still, passengers aren't allowed to get out of the bus, and the tour moves on to something called the Pico Union Graffiti Lab, where you can legally spray-paint the walls.

One of the artists here is Moz-art, who has been decorating the city with graffiti since he was a kid. He's creating what he calls a "quick burner" of an abbreviation of his name, "mo." He says he's in a crew of artists, not to be confused with a gang. He has mixed feelings about the gang tour.

"It could be looked at two ways, like we're being ... stared at like some kind of sideshow," Moz-art says. "On the flip side of that it could be looked at as a positive thing to give people a closer eye to see what goes on in the hood."

Freeway Scarier Than The Gangs

That was about as close as tourgoers got to experiencing life in the hood.

Lomas escorts everyone back on the bus after posing for pictures in front of graffiti.

After the tour, Auld, the Aussie tourist, said the trip was worthwhile.

"The most important thing about this tour is to reinforce the fact that these guys are human," Auld says.

Auld's biggest complaint: having signed a frightening release form at the outset of the tour, which warned it was inherently dangerous. Auld was hoping for a little more excitement.

"The scariest part of that tour was being on the freeway," Auld says. "I think that was the only time we were in danger the whole tour."

For his part, Lomas is happy to have the tour finish without incident. He calls today a success. The bus was nearly sold out, and he's planning another LA Gang Tour next month. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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