Reporter's Notebook: Building prosperity is still a struggle in South L.A.

Gustavo Olguin, 60, opened Supreme Fine Furniture on West Washington Blvd. in L.A.'s Pico-Union neighborhood with his two brothers in 2010.

L.A. furniture-store owner Gustavo Olguin's old work boots, spray-painted gold and turned into flower pots. He wore them out after he arrived in the U.S. from Mexico, walking the streets collecting bottles and cans.

I moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast in 1993 as a cub reporter. South Central -- the city fathers hadn’t rebranded it "South L.A." yet to try and erase the stigma of the 1992 riots -- was still in ruins. I was sent to do a 2nd anniversary story at Florence and Normandie -- the flashpoint of the civil unrest, where truck driver Reginald Denny had been savagely attacked. Driving those streets, I cruised past one empty lot after another, some still strewn with broken glass and charred rubble.

In those first few years after the riots, I was sent back to the neighborhood several times to cover announcements and promises of rebuilding initiatives, community lending programs, public-private partnerships. Hundreds of millions were spent, though more was asked for and never quite materialized.

I returned in mid-April, 2012, to look at the neighborhood 20 years later for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk. I found a place changed by demographics, but largely passed over by economic development.

In 1992, this vast urban area of more than 800,000 residents was roughly half black and half Latino. For decades now, blacks have been steadily leaving -- for suburbs in the Inland Empire or the high desert, if they can afford it, where schools and housing are better. Latinos have moved in. They now constitute two-thirds of the population, a trend that will likely continue in coming years.

Empty lots continue to dot the streetscape -- they still haven’t been built on, though the rubble has long since been cleared. What rebuilding there has been mainly takes the form of strip malls specializing in fast-food, lavanderias (coin laundries), liquor stores, mini-marts, payday lenders. The Ralph’s grocery chain delivered on its promise to open some big supermarkets here, but South L.A. largely remains a low-income “food desert.”

There is one true point of pride in the neighborhood -- a revitalized commercial strip in the heart of the African-American neighborhood anchored by the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall. It sports a Macy’s and a Wal-Mart, and has received tens of millions in private investment.

Danny Bakewell, Sr., has his office across the street. He’s a leading African-American real estate developer and veteran civil rights campaigner, and also publishes the main black newspaper in the city -- the L.A. Sentinel. Bakewell’s glad some commercial normalcy has come to this neighborhood: Starbucks and Robek’s (the juice-bar chain), banks and wireless carriers, have all opened storefronts along Crenshaw Boulevard in the shadow of the mall.

But Bakewell says the economic effect is little more than skin deep: “There are a lot of people around here who don’t have any other place to spend,” he says. “And they’ve got money to spend. It’s like bringing water to the desert. But yet, when you get off these corridors, the vibrancy is not the same. And we need jobs, we need major, major infusions of jobs.”

And jobs is what South L.A. still doesn’t have nearly enough of. Bakewell estimates unemployment is around 40 percent. Half of residents don’t even have a high-school diploma. One in three families live below the federal poverty line. And the recession has only made matters worse.

UCLA economist Paul Ong affirms that job-creation efforts have fallen flat in the past 20 years. If anything, he says, the employment situation has continued to deteriorate, with big manufacturing companies long gone, and many government jobs now vanishing due to budget cuts.

“South Los Angeles is just as badly off now, as previously,” says Ong. “What has not changed is that this is quite often the area where disadvantaged and marginalized populations reside. And that is a huge problem for us.”

And yet, I did find vibrancy, perseverance, and even hope in South L.A. 20 years after the civil unrest.

John Harriel, Jr., is 42. His hard-hat has “Big John” stenciled on it. “It’s because of the size, brother, because of the size,” he laughs. And Harriel is a big man. Twenty years ago, he would have been an intimidating presence -- if he’d been out on the street in his gang colors during the riots. But he says he stayed inside, away from the violence and looting. He was on parole for selling drugs and he didn’t want his parole officer to pick him out of an aerial video of the unrest and have to go back to prison. But a few months later, he was back in prison anyway -- for more drug dealing.

When he came out a few years after the riots, he got his life on track -- landed an apprenticeship, and eventually became a union electrician. He’s raised a family in the same South Central neighborhood where he grew up. He now has a granddaughter.

I met him at his job at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, near Watts. He’s a construction manager on a $255 million project to build a new inpatient care center. One of Harriel’s roles is to oversee training for the roughly 200 construction workers (half the total) who -- according to the union contract -- must live within five miles of the construction site. Many of those, he says, are also “disadvantaged” -- meaning they were formerly incarcerated, drug-addicted, or homeless before they came into the job-training program.

They come out with a skill -- mason, carpenter, electrician -- and a union card. Wages start at $16/hour and rise to $39/hour, plus full health and pension benefits.

Harriel wants others to be able to do what he has done: to better themselves, raise their families, and stay in the neighborhood. “We’re talking about career -- career is a whole different mindset” to just getting a job, he says. “The best of the best, the cream of the crop, is right here in this community, and they’re getting an opportunity to learn something that will benefit them and their families for the rest of their lives. So now, I don’t have to leave my community to live an OK life, and be responsible in my community, instead of destroying it.”

As we talked, men and women in hard-hats passed in and out of the gate between construction trailers and the building zone. I pointed out that most of them were white. Harriel had told me that 50 percent of the workers were black and Latino from the neighborhood. “Those people are management,” he said with a wry smile. “We still have some work to do.”

Later that day, I visited a small furniture store in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pico-Union. This area is north of South Central, and was also hit hard by rioting and looting 20 years ago.

Gustavo Olguin runs the store. He’s 60, and he came to the U.S. from Mexico as a young man. He arrived without a dime, he says. To make money, he’s done everything from collect recyclables and scrap metal to cook in big tourist hotels. Nearly two years ago, he and his two brothers pooled their money to open this low-cost furniture store. They don’t speak much English, and sell mostly to Spanish-speaking residents who lives nearby. To help make the rent, they sublease space in the front of the store to other Latino small-business owners. One sells T-shirts and fresh tacos, another cheap necklaces and earrings. Still another sends money orders back to Mexico and Central America.

For now, Olguin just wants to get a reputation in the neighborhood for quality, low-cost furniture. Most local residents live on very low incomes below the poverty line. And there’s plenty of competition for his shop along these crowded commercial streets. But Olguin hopes eventually to have a chain of stores -- and expand to what he calls “American” neighborhoods, where people have more money to spend.

I asked him why he took the risk-buying inventory, renting the space, leaving his restaurant job. He said he wants to work for himself now. He wants to build something.

Back in a corner of the store, sitting on top of a bookcase that was for sale, I found something I thought might work in my house -- a tchotchke to put on our living-room mantelpiece. It was a pair of work boots, well-worn and weathered, that had been covered in gold spray paint.

“No, they’re not for sale,” he told me. And of course, they did have a story.

“I didn’t have anything left in my pocket -- not one centavo, not one cent -- to get ahead in my life,” he says. “Nothing except for these boots.” This was after he’d arrived in the U.S., and was pounding the pavement collecting bottles and cans. “So I just kept walking around in these boots, even though they were really worn out. Finally, the day came when I could afford a pair of new shoes. And I thought about selling them, or throwing them away. But then I said to myself, “Why? I like these boots. They’ve brought me luck." So I painted them, put a glass in each, and turned them into flower pots.”

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

L.A. furniture-store owner Gustavo Olguin's old work boots, spray-painted gold and turned into flower pots. He wore them out after he arrived in the U.S. from Mexico, walking the streets collecting bottles and cans.


I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...