L.A. tour shows a slice of gang life

Caitlan Reeg Mar 5, 2010

L.A. tour shows a slice of gang life

Caitlan Reeg Mar 5, 2010


KAI RYSSDAL: As with most major cities, Los Angeles has its share of tourist attractions — you’ve got the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, star tours past the homes of the rich and famous, even if all you get to see are the gates and hedges out front. But there is a growing number of what you might call “cultural tours,” in parts of L.A. that are more likely to lead the local news than “Access Hollywood.”

Marketplace’s Caitlan Carroll reports.

Alfred Lomas: How’s everybody doing?

Tourists: Good, great.

Lomas: If nobody moves, nobody gets hurt. Slide all your money to the front. It’s just a joke.

Caitlan Carroll: Alfred Lomas was a member of one of L.A.’s toughest gangs for years. Now he tries to get former gang members into jobs. His latest brainstorm? Hire them to be tour guides to their own dangerous pasts.

Lomas: OK, so many of you may have questions as to what L.A. Gang Tours is. I’ll tell you what it’s not. First of all what it’s not and what you won’t get is you won’t see us in wife beaters, throwing dice and selling dope. You won’t get that.

You won’t get that, because Lomas has made a deal with local gangs. They let his tour bus roll safely through their neighborhoods. The tour goes to industrial and working class areas where gangs thrive. It also rolls past the L.A. County Jail, and the site of one of the biggest gang fights between the Bloods and the Crips. But the only actual gang members you meet are on the bus. One by one, they file up to the front to talk about their lives on the streets.

Scorpio: Hey, how y’all doing, wassup? That’s what we say in the hood. My name Scorpio, I’m from the Jordan Down projects. And I’ve been involved with the culture since I was a puppy. Did over 22 years in jail…

This is the kind of up-close encounter Kevin Johnson came for. He’s a pre-med student at the University of Southern California. And he’s one of dozens of people who paid $65 to take the L.A. gang tour today.

Kevin Johnson: Being from Texas, I wasn’t necessarily exposed to gang culture and I’m fascinated by it.

Lomas saw potential in that fascination, but he didn’t know how to turn it into a tour. Enter Dennis Justice. He supplies drivers and buses to tour companies. He’s been in the business for years. He told Lomas to keep it simple.

Dennis Justice: Sometimes, less is more. And I’ve been on tours where you start to feel like a French goose with your feet nailed to the floor being force fed.

On the gang tour, you don’t feel like a goose. Maybe more like a cash cow. Lomas makes a couple stops where tourists can buy handmade goods or make donations.

Lisa Sprinkles: Good morning, welcome to the Watts Arts Gallery.

The gallery is lined with colorful inexpensive paintings, all for sale. One way Lomas convinced neighbors to be part of a gang tour was by promising that some of the money would flow into the community.

Aqeela Sherrills runs the gallery.

Aqeela Sherrills: It’s creating an opportunity for a lot of folks to be able to make a living to be able to provide resources for organizations.

But not everyone in the community is so enthusiastic. Many local residents and business owners think the tour is a terrible way to represent their neighborhoods. Francisco Ortega is a human relations advocate for the City of Los Angeles. He’s heard a lot of those complaints.

Francisco Ortega: “How are you proposing to make money off people’s misery?” and that’s sort of one knee-jerk reaction, one gut feeling you get. “Oh this is not right. How could this happen?”

Despite some push back, the gang tour is catching on. Early tours have been sold out. Lomas says his goal is to provide even more jobs, but first, the business has to succeed.

Lomas: We’re no different than any other business, whether you’re talking about a liquor store or a church you have to make a profit in order to sustain yourself.

And the tour is not the end of the line. Lomas’s next stop? A gang museum.

In Los Angeles, I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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