Wesley Smith stands outside his office near the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and 54th Street in South Los Angeles. The longtime local real estate agent points to scars from the past.
“That vacant lot across the street used to be a nice three-story commercial building,” Smith says. “It burned down in the Rodney King riot.”
"South L.A. has been stagnant since the Watts riot, actually," he says. That was 50 years ago.
Crenshaw and 54th is in LA’s 8th city council district, which sits south of the 10 Freeway and west of the 110. It includes Baldwin Hills, also known as the black Beverly Hills. But poor neighborhoods with high unemployment rates — especially among young Black and Latino men — are more common. It's one of the poorest of the city's 15 districts.
Violence is more common here than elsewhere in the city. There have been five murders and more than 500 violent crimes in the police divisions that patrol this area so far this year. But crime is dramatically lower than it was a decade ago, and the focus of debate in the city council contest is economic investment and jobs.
Lowest wages, fewest jobs
Numbers compiled by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce tell the economic tale of the 8th District:
- With 7,100 firms, District 8 has the fewest jobs of any city council district: 17,900 private and 2,600 public sector jobs.
- Average annual wage in the district, roughly $25,500, is the lowest of all city council districts.
- Employment in District 8 grew robustly in 2013, increasing by 7.6 percent, to 17,900 jobs. But the bulk of the growth occurred in jobs that pay workers less than $25,000 per year.
The 8th District no longer includes Leimert Park, which is undergoing a renaissance. Leimert, along with USC, was moved into Council President Herb Wesson’s district after a political fight with the current 8th District Councilman Bernard Parks.
"We're at the bottom of the heap," laments Winnie Jackson of the Hyde Park area. "We've been neglected, and I blame our public officials."
“Its a district that has been a place of significant disinvestment by large companies,” said USC Sociology Professor Manuel Pastor, who also holds a Ph.D. in economics. "Unemployment that persists over a long period of time in which people are detached from the labor market creates a lot of generational disadvantages."
The problems date back decades and have many roots: the collapse of the auto manufacturing and aerospace industries that once provided good, middle class jobs; the decline of public schools and high drop out rates; the crack cocaine epidemic and crime explosion; and, more recently, the foreclosure crisis.
Many of these conditions existed elsewhere, but South L.A. has had a harder time recovering. It never really benefited from the economic boom of the late 1990s and has yet to see the comeback of a Hollywood or Highland Park.
"These other places improved first because they had transit," Pastor says. "They also had really good physical infrastructure."
He points to more private and government investment in commercial corridors, streets and rail lines in other rundown neighborhoods, as well as physical attributes like the rolling hills of Highland Park.
The four council candidates for the 8th District are promising to reverse the downward trend. “This is our time,” declares Forescee Hogan-Rowles on her campaign website.
Parks, who is termed out, is well liked here, but many feel he did not do enough to bring economic development.
The candidates agreed on many issues during a recent community forum, including pushing City Hall to provide more resources and luring private investment with incentives. But they offer different resumes and place their focus on different solutions.
- Marqueece Harris-Dawson, 45, heads the Community Coalition and is endorsed by Congresswoman Karen Bass and City Council President Herb Wesson. He focuses on public sector jobs. He wants the city to restore the thousands of government jobs lost during the recession. He also promises to persuade city labor unions to do more for the neighborhood. "The first thing I'm going to say to them is you got to build a job training facility on Crenshaw with a big giant sign that says you don't need a high school diploma, and you can even have a (felony) record,” he said.
- Hogan-Rowles, 57, is CEO of R.I.S.E. Financial Pathways, a nonprofit that specializes in small business loans. She is endorsed by former Congresswoman Diane Watson and former L.A. Fire Chief Douglas Barry. She says she'd promote more public private partnerships."The top 100 corporations actually have offices in Southern California,” she pointed out. “But they are not investing in our communities. And we use their services.”
- Robert Cole, 49, is a political consultant and one-time president of the Baldwin Hills Homeowners Association. He is endorsed by Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for whom he once worked, and the Rev. Cecil Murray. He wants to focus on improving the quality of life in the district. “Yes, we need jobs and economic development,” he says. “But we have to clean up this community. Nobody is going to want to shop in this community if its not safe and clean."
- Bobby Jean Anderson, 76, is a community activist endorsed by Parks and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She argues the city needs to divert more resources to the 8th from other areas of the city. "The more affluent districts that get equal resources may not need those resources,” she says. “Clearly our district really falls short of getting what we need.”
All of the candidates are African-American, even though half the residents are Latino. That’s because at least two-thirds of the voters will likely be black, according to Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
"When you take into account the youthfulness of the Latino community and take into account the heavy non-citizenship, the actual number of registered Latino voters is probably 15 to 20 percent,” Gonzalez says.
He expects more Latino voters — and as a result more Latino candidates — in future council elections. Turnout March 3 is expected to be as low as 16 percent of registered voters. That would mean about 20,000 voters in a district of about 250,000 residents.
The economic future for this part of South L.A. isn't entirely bleak: It includes a new light rail line down Crenshaw Boulevard to LAX. That's expected to bring economic activity.
Smith, the real estate agent, says he's also seeing white and Asian-American homebuyers priced out of other areas trickle into his office.
"In 50 years, this will be the place to be,” he argues. Sounding every bit the real estate agent, he points out that the area sits near the middle of the L.A. basin, with freeways nearby and access to economic engines like the airport.
But Smith says a brighter future will require a council representative willing to fight for resources for a district that's so far missed out on L.A.'s emerging renaissance.