Cats and Meows in L.A.

At the Veterinarian clinic waiting to pick up Grumpy, a long hair Tuxedo, a conversation was struck with a young couple sitting in the waiting room. The room inundated of barking dogs and crying meows we both inquired the health reasons why our pets were here. Her cat had a rash, my cat was limping. The engagement continued back and forth. They had come a bit far to this clinic, all the way from the city of Ontario, California which has a population size of about 173,000 (according to the U.S Census Bureau 2016 stats) to South Central Los Angeles. The reason was, the cost to see a veterinarian was more affordable here than it was in Ontario. The conversation switched to and from between the couple and I. The boyfriend leans over and whispers, “Do You live in this area?” I answer, “Yes.” Then he asked, “Why is it so run down here?” I Had to pause and compute his question. Before answering I turn and looked out the window across one of the most delineated streets associated with South Central, Slauson Ave. The first word that came to mind was, “Politicians.” He gets closer and adds, “But I don’t understand, the City of Los Angeles has money!” At that precise moment, the receptionist calls my name, I stand up and walk over to the desk, “Please sign here and take a seat. We’ll call you as soon as your cat is ready to go home.”

I return to the same spot. And again, we continue were we left off.  He reiterates the same question, “Your city has more money than Ontario, Pomona, and Clairmont all put together. The money is there!” His surprised and perplexed expression implied I had to take it a little further. I took the signed copy handed to me by the receptionist and wrote on the back of it, two words; geographical discrimination. I said, “much of what you see here today has to do with the lack of political will. Yes, the money is there, opportunities are hard to come by. The City is working hard and fast for the rich (hence gentrification) and the well off, and slow for the poor and neglected neighborhoods in particularly those of color.” He insists “But Why.” His legitimate question now required a 100-year-old explanation to which I had no time nor the age required to finish telling it.

Too many promises have been made by politicians whom have made their careers on verbiage as thin as toilet paper ignoring the needs of the South-Central Los Angeles residents. Sterilized punch lines like ‘Si Se Puede’ (yes we can) are visible only when needed for elections.  Silence takes over while he stares at the carrier that holds his white and grey striped Tuffy cat. I didn’t want to leave with any projection of hopelessness onto the couple much less to the child that accompanied them. I looked at him and said, “well, racism, location, and power combined together are determinants that have shaped South Central Los Angeles.” He continued starring at his pet carrier without saying a word or asking a question. More than hope I needed to supply in this instant moment, some sense of orientation so he and his girlfriend could map the circumstances that mold a community. I follow up with “Our communities as underserved as they are, provide hundreds of jobs and generate millions of dollars of revenues and is the home of a cheap labor reserve for the entire city and surrounding communities. I dare to speculate that the lack of attention directed towards South Central L.A is done with the idea of reserving the land for future projects.” His girlfriend wraps her arm around him and leans her head on his shoulder. He raises his head in deep thought and sounds out, “Hum.”

I’m hoping that this one time brief encounter reaps some understanding of the complexity of any given community that faces the same conditions as does South L.A and that it may provide the tools to engage and organize against a cycle that reproduces the making of poverty and marginalization.

His inquiry (was like pulling out an aching tooth) had yanked out a reality from all the political campaigns debris; the distribution of wealth continues to favor the privilege, the powerful and the one percent. For the most part, any concern for improvements have been kept to a minimum. Firsthand experience during political campaigns promises have come in attractive cosmetic packaging; fixing potholes, more police, a few tree donations and new schools that resemble prison complexes which can one day become detention centers. Improving South Central Los Angeles does not come with the construction of a new football stadium at Exposition Park or the L.A live Corridor on Figueroa Ave. The investment and care should and must stem from ethical principles embedded in politics, economics, education, health, centers of well-being and the ecological surroundings within South Central L.A.

A Marshall plan overhaul is long overdue, were the poor, working class and the underrepresented can genuinely directly represent themselves and shape the future of South L.A as a united block of neighborhoods. The vertical administrative managers of the city busy punishing and laying out excuses as, ‘cutbacks and lack of funds’ should come to an immediate end. There is a need for more horizontal interactive engagement with the people to the improvement of a space that we call home and casa known to us, as South-Central L.A. Like athletes who practice building muscle memory, the city too must work in building a healthy memory of political praxis that is lean from bureaucratic corruption, self-promoting politicians and indifference towards our communities.  After an hour wait, a student intern at the clinics opens a door and calls out, “Grumpy Centeno is ready.” I get up and pick the carrier. On the way out, I shake hands with the inquiry minded couple and wish them a safe trip back home.

Leaving the clinic did not just come with the picking of Grumpy. His questions turned into a vortex of unresolved issues as to why we are here. His inquiry rumbled in my thoughts like an empty stomach growling for food. South Central Los Angeles consists of 28 neighborhoods (51 square miles). It is home to an immigrant Latin community, African Americans, working class and the Homeless.[1]  In one month (May 2017) alone, the received allegations of abused children in one way or another is 17,144 in the County of Los Angeles.[2] The most uneven social stratification is concentrated along The South-Central corridor adjacent to the industrial Alameda Ave. According to a study provided by the South Los Angeles Building Healthy Communities Initiative, South Central residents live 5 years less than those who live in other areas of the city.[3] Although no longer as overt, segregation laws of the early and mid-twentieth century that were crucial in establishing the parameters of containment for South Central Los Angeles continue to this very day.[4] The residue of such policies is very much visible today. Much of the investment that comes to South Central strays away from health services, centers of well-being, addressing poverty and housing, instead go to municipal services and security.[5] There is no room for the utilization of public space in a communal way. Let us be reminded of the destruction of one of the largest urban farms in the country, the South-Central farm a 14-acre cooperative bulldozed in 2006.[6] It was a farm that assisted 350 families in subsidizing their income with the sales of organic products.

Historian Mike Davis in his book City of Quartz, published in 1990, writes: “as in other American cities, the municipal policy has taken as lead from security offensive and the middle-class demand for an increased special and social isolation. De facto disinvestment in traditional public space and recreation has supported the shift of fiscal resources to corporate-defined redevelopment priorities.”[7] His statement is relevant today 27 years later.


[1] http://maps.latimes.com/neighborhoods/region/south-la/

[2] http://www.lacdcfs.org/aboutus/fact_sheet/DRS/2017/Fact_Sheet_May-2017.pdf

[3] https://www.kcet.org/shows/departures/south-la-residents-face-staggering-environmental-health-and-justice-problems

[4] https://www.kcet.org/shows/departures/land-use-in-south-la-a-legacy-of-environmental-crime

[5] Michael Matsunaga: Concentrated Poverty Neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Economic Round table,2005.

[6] http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/3028

[7] Mike Davis: The City of Quartz, Verso New York 2006, p.227

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