Category Archives: Southern California

The Palomino Rides Again

I don’t go in for nostalgia much. The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, for example, seems a sad place to end up, because it means you and what you created are antiques, dead.

So last night, when I went to the resurrection of The Palomino nightclub (for one night only) in the San Fernando Valley, I was wary.

The Palomino, until its closing in 1995, was part of the roiling, ethnically based music scenes that spawned in Los Angeles in the decades before the Internet and changes in the music industry and club world made such conglomerations rare.

Music is created in a time and a place by people from both and eventually they all pass, and only the records remain, which I figure is good enough.

The excuse for last night was to hold a benefit for a new pop-art museum – Valley Relics. Really, though, it was a chance to remember.

But instead of wallowing in the past, a dozen or more singers showcased the beauty of the music created at The Palomino. True, there were a few too many speeches about how great things were back when. But what I’ll take with me is a raw and simple sweetness, intensity, and longing in the music that I don’t associate with oldies, nostalgia shows.

Three monster backup bands, including one led by guitarist James Intveld, who got his start at The Palomino, were worth paying to see by themselves; his band included the tremendous Marty Rifkin on pedal steel.

Last night, I was finally able to see Rosie Flores, who rocks as hard as anyone. Jim Lauderdale was impeccable and has a voice that, if anything, has improved with age. I first heard him on an anthology album called A Town South of Bakersfield that I found sometime in the early 1990s and was my introduction to LA country.

Most unexpectedly, Gunnar Nelson, of the heartthrob band Nelson, and son of TV-teen-idol-turned-country-act Rick Nelson, showed up to play a Dylan song and two by his late father. He told the story behind his dad’s hit, “Garden Party,” which Rick Nelson wrote after playing a Madison Square Garden oldies show, only now he was playing hippie country music and the crowd hated it. He wrote the song and its chorus (“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”) in response. Never knew that story. The song took on a power and poignancy I’d never associated with it until his son played it.

(I’ll admit to not knowing until today that Intveld’s brother, Rick, played in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and both were killed when the band’s plane crashed in Texas in 1985.)

A slide show on a wall reminded us that the great days of The Palomino were the 1970s and into the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Those were great years for music scenes in L.A., and thus for the clubs where they found their legs.

In the late 1970s, legions of white punks in Hollywood created their own scene, complete with clubs but also halls rented for DIY shows. That was followed in the mid-1980s by black kids from Compton creating beats in their garages on SP 1200 drum machines, birthing gangsta rap. Not long after that, the narcocorrido scene emerged in the newly forged Mexican-immigrant enclaves of South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Lynwood southeast of L.A., growing from the music of Chalino Sanchez, who was murdered in 1992.

All of these had in common a lot of young folks who were initially ignored by the recording industry and mainstream radio, and who thus learned to make their own records and promote them on their own, selling them in swap meets and outside shows.

Meanwhile, out on Lankersheim in the then-largely white San Fernando Valley, The Palomino attracted huge stars of country music – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson. But the club was also a magnet for young musicians who came to LA from all over to play country music. Some of the best country music in America was created there.

The Palomino offered what all music scenes must have: A venue for young artists and bands to aspire to, a place to hone, to be heard and discovered. Dwight Yoakam was an opening act there. The club was also a hangout for young actors and stuntmen in the film industry.

So last night was a good night. In the end maybe I was affected by some bit of nostalgia. The night made me yearn for the days when I was going to the Hong Kong Café and watching the Germs, the Plugz and the Go-Gos on the same small stage. (I think I once went to The Palomino – can’t remember any more – but I do know that back then a trip to the 818 was, for me, almost like a trip to another country, so it didn’t happen much.)

Today, from what I can see, the era of the L.A. music scene is largely dead. My take is that the Internet has made music so easy to create that the industry has fragmented into a million little pieces and no sufficiently large critical mass of fans, clubs, and media attention can form around a small group of artists doing daring new stuff. Everything’s so diffuse. Listen to KCRW and you rarely hear the same band – they just cascade by.

I’m sure someone will correct me on this. Maybe I’m not paying as much attention as I used to.

But going out to dive clubs where daring music is played doesn’t seem quite the thing it once was. Without the clubs as centers of community where fans can see musicians and musicians can improve – like, in their day, the Hong Kong Café, El Parral, and The Palomino – it’s hard to imagine that kind of musical effervescence repeated.

Which is not to say new stuff won’t come along – it just may not happen in a community the way it once did.

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Filed under California, Culture, Los Angeles, Southern California

Orchard Supply Hardware And The Mediocrity of Millionaires

Today I learned that the Orchard Supply Hardware store near me is closing.

Some 4300 people* are losing their jobs. A chain of growing and seemingly profitable hardware stores, serving well their communities, is being liquidated.

OSH, as it’s known, has 99 stores in California, Oregon and Florida. If you don’t live in those states, you may wonder why this matters to you. But it does.

For this is not about globalization, or low-skilled immigrants stealing 4300 jobs. Instead it’s Wall Street; it’s about a few rich guys who need to make their numbers.

When I talk about Dreamland, I often say that our opiate epidemic grew from our destruction of community, in many ways, all across America. The demise of Orchard Supply Hardware, announced last week, is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

OSH was a place where the community came, where people bought things with which they built their homes and yards.

The store had a rare combination in hardware these days: great customer service and smaller stores. That meant you could actually find the things you needed. This earned it $600 million in sales last year. OSH, which is owned by Lowe’s, was expanding.

OSH is a chain but people I know feel like it’s their local hardware store. I didn’t buy hardware anywhere else. With all the crappy chain stores and chain restaurants we Americans have to tolerate stomping all over our country, here was one that people actually wanted to shop in, and felt close to.

It seemed that behind OSH was a creative idea: position it as an alternative in a world where customers are moving away from big box stores they have to drive for miles to get to. Smaller stores, easier to get to, alert and knowledgeable staff.

Sadly, Lowe’s backed off this inventive positioning of OSH in July when it hired Marvin Ellison as CEO.

Ellison was the CEO of JCPenney. There, he ran the company into its worst quarter ever. In his last quarter, the company lost $69 million and its stock hit an historic low. In his three years there, JCP shares dropped by more than half. For that record, he was compensated with $10.8 million in cash and stock in 2017, then hired this year to revitalize Lowe’s.

You may wonder: What about that record makes this guy worth hiring anywhere?

You may wonder: What company looking to rebound in this retail environment would hire anyone from JCPenney?

Another question that may occur to you is, why does Lowe’s feel in such a hurry to boost its stock price? Well one reason, apparently, is that a big chunk of Lowe’s stock has been purchased by Bill Ackman, an activist hedge-fund investor, who is hankering for change and wanted Ellison.

Why anyone would listen to Ackman’s advice on business is an interesting question. His hedge fund has lost half its value in the bull market of the last three years.

Ackman is the guy pushing things to go fast at Lowe’s. And he’s the reason the former CEO, a guy with some long-term vision, was booted.

Here’s why: Ackman’s hedge fund once had $20 billion, but as investors have pulled out amid its poor performance, the fund now has only $8 billion. Of that, he’s betting $1 billion on Lowe’s stock to rise, and quickly, to staunch the investor exodus. (For more, watch this CNBC interview.)

Thus, Forbes wrote, “The Lowe’s clock is ticking. And with Ackman as the timekeeper, Marvin Ellison is a man in a hurry.”

First idea: liquidate a growing and seemingly profitable chain of stores and its 5400 employees. Double down on big-box retailing just as consumers are rejecting it.

Mind you, this has nothing to do with improving the long-term viability of Lowe’s as a business.

But I guess if I’d lost as much money as Ackman has, I’d be in a hurry to earn it back, too.

Still, you know, Ackman and Ellison might take a moment. Common folks are paying the price: the employees, the contractors and communities that rely on those stores.

In corporate America — as we’ve swooned over it, exalted it, praised its wealthy leaders for making themselves lots of money — the clear hunch I have is that, really, a lot of the fellows at the top are not that good. It’s mediocrity on parade a lot of the time, insulated from results, from any whiff of merit pay, and from the consequences of their failures, particularly as they are felt in towns across America.

I spoke to a guy at my OSH store who said he had worked for the company for 20 years. Here’s how he was told the news: On the afternoon of Tuesday last, company officials suddenly shut the store, escorted the remaining customers out, assembled the staff, and let them know their jobs were ending; the store was closing Oct. 20.

“Today you’re Orchard Supply Hardware. Tomorrow you belong to liquidators,” he said they were told.

Within a couple days, “Everything Must Go” signs were all over the store.

You may wonder: How is that okay?

Here’s Ellison: Lowe’s is “developing plans to aggressively rationalize store inventory, reducing lower-performing inventory while investing in increased depth of high-velocity items. Exiting Orchard Supply Hardware and rationalizing inventory are the driving force behind the changes to Lowe’s Business Outlook.”

So they’re going to stock stuff that sells well. Brilliant idea.

But why does that mean OSH must close? Why not sell it to someone who actually gives a damn about Americans and their communities, and who has the creativity and energy to run such a company?

(NOTE: A Lowe’s spokeswoman emailed me this morning (8/29) with this response to the columns, saying that OSH was not profitable:

We are working hard to make this transition as smooth as possible for our associates and our customers.  We will be retaining our associates through the store closure process and are encouraging them to apply for open roles at Lowe’s stores, where they will receive priority status. Associates will receive job placement assistance, and we will be providing eligibility for severance. 86 percent of Orchard locations are located within 10 miles of a Lowe’s store.

The decision to exit Orchard was based on the need to focus growing our core home improvement business and deploy our capital to more profitable projects. Orchard’s 2017 earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) was a -$65 million on sales of approximately $605 million.*)

Instead, Marvin Ellison, escaping JCPenney, decided within less than two months to close 99 stores and lay off 4300 people.

All because? Well apparently Bill Ackman has lost a lot of money in bad investments.

As I’ve traveled the country, I’ve learned that the cost of losing Main Street has been incalculable – yet we bow to the free market as if we have no choice. That’s what’s happening here.

The good news? Lowe’s stock price has gone up a few bucks – so I guess we can all breathe easier.

This move will harm Lowe’s in the long run. I know sales are going online, but hardware will always be different. Customers need that contact with sales staff who know their stuff. Even contractors say that. (See a video about contractors’ opinions on OSH closing.)

OSH formed in 1931. Many years later it was bought by Sears, whose glory days were well behind it, looking to spruce up its home-improvement position. Owned finally by a hedge fund, Sears apparently did what Sears is now known for as a hedge-fund property – it muddled through. (Read an LA Times story here.)

Finally, it spun the company off, but not before saddling it with enormous debt. Naturally, that debt crushed OSH into bankruptcy within two years. This is how Business Insider described it:

“In 2005, Sears Holdings – by then run by hedge-fund guy Eddie Lampert – announced that it would extract a special dividend of $450 million out of OSH, and that OSH would borrow the money to pay this dividend.

“In January 2012, in typical private-equity manner, the now heavily indebted OSH was spun off to the public; 18 months later, in June 2013, OSH, buckling under this debt that Sears Holdings had put on it, filed for bankruptcy.”

In bankruptcy, OSH was bought in 2013 by Lowe’s, which, under then-CEO Robert Niblock, did some great things. Above all, it remodeled OSH stores. Funny what happens when you invest as if for the long run. The staff now seemed motivated. The store came to life; so apparently did the chain. In Pasadena, it became one of the city’s biggest sales-tax generators

Until that day in July when OSH’s parent company hired a guy from JCPenney at the behest of a hedge-fund owner losing money in a bull market.

You may wonder at it all.

If so, here’s a petition to make yourselves felt. Please share it, and this article, if you like it.

  • (Correction: I originally noted the number of OSH employees as 5400. A Lowe’s spokeswoman informs me that the correct number is 4300 and I’ve made that correction throughout.)

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Filed under Business, California, Southern California

Dirty Thirds: Cops, the Mexican Mafia & LA’s disappearing gangs

Los Angeles has seen gang violence plummet in the last decade.

Some of the reasons why were on display in two federal criminal conspiracy cases announced this afternoon at a press conference at the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney.

The cases involved the Mexican Mafia prison gang controlling drug taxation and trafficking in two places: The LA County Jail, largest jail in America, and in the city of Pomona.

The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that runs the Latino gang members in the state’s prison system. About 25 years ago, it extended that power to the streets, ordering those gang members to tax neighborhood drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to MM members. Drug taxation thrives and amounts to the first regional organized crime system in the history of Southern California.

One case involved a Mafia member who controlled drug trafficking in the entire jail, according to the indictment: Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who grew up in East LA,  a member of the South Los gang. He’s apparently been in county jail for many years, during the reign of the now deceased Lalo Martinez, a controversial MM member. Through those years, and after Martinez died, Landa-Rodriguez allegedly grew to control the drugs entering and for sale across the jail system.

Inmates not with the Mexican Mafia had to get his permission to sell. Only way to do that was by funneling a third of their product to the gang — hence the name of the case, Operation Dirty Thirds — then waiting while Mexican Mafia associates sold the stuff. That’s one way of controlling your competition. Violators were often beaten. That’s another.

They were helped, prosecutors allege, by Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a local attorney whom investigators say helped facilitate the trade, passed notes back and forth between Mexican Mafia associates, and that kind of thing. They were also helped by a slew of go-betweens who would get arrested with drugs in their bodies.

The other indictment involved a Mexican Mafia member named Mike Lerma, who has controlled Pomona for many years from his cell in solitary confinement at Pelican BayState Prison maximum lockdown. Crews of members from 12thStreet, Cherryville and Pomona Sur street gangs were working together under Lerma’s command, the indictment alleges. The indictment alleges Lerma’s crews did kidnappings, robberies, identity theft. These are Pomona gangs that have harbored animosity against each other for years, but have repressed the urge to go after one another due to orders from Lerma, according to officers I spoke with.

(Btw, I briefly met Mike Lerma one time, in his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. We were separated by Plexiglass and he was cooking a cup of cocoa on his hotplate in his pale-yellow concrete cell where he spent 23 hours of every day. He was small, a wan and bent fellow, wearied by years on solitary confinement. From behind the glass, he waved, said how you doing? I said fine.)

The mafia’s system has forced gangs to abandon what made them local neighborhood scourges because it leads to unwanted police attention.

“Years ago, they were about turf,” said one. “Now they’re about protecting their business.”

For decades, they waged wars over turf. They defended street corners, parks, markets, apartment buildings like they actually belonged to them.  They were very much street gangs, and their activity — graffiti, shootings, car jackings, simple hanging out through which they did their recruiting — blighted working-class neighborhoods across Southern California.

These days, though, they are absent. They have retreated into the shadows. Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Just that they’ve disappeared from the streets, no longer are out in public, damaging neighborhoods that can least afford it, spraying up mom-and-pop markets. Homicides are way down because gangs don’t have easy rival targets to shoot at. That’s one reason anyway. In Pomona, the once-notorious Sharkey Park – from which Pomona 12thStreet earned its name the Sharks (members often had shark tattoos) — hasn’t had a shooting in who knows how many years. Some Pomona cops at the press conference couldn’t remember the last one. As if to exorcise the past, the park has been renamed Tony Cerda Park, in honor of a Native-American activist and tribal leader; pow-wows are held at the park.

Gangs are just not evidence in Southern California. It’s a remarkable, profound change in culture and crime, and one that benefits cities, neighborhoods, and working-class residents most of all. Parks are once again places for kids to play. This is part due to dictates in the underworld, from organizations like the Mexican Mafia, who want their business protected.

But it’s also due to an unprecedented amount of collaboration among law enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, this didn’t exist. Agencies fought each other for credit, turf, budget, as the gangs grew fierce and brazen. But the last decade or more has seen a remarkable change and that too you could see at the press conference.

At the press conference, cops of all stripes assembled to thank each other for working together. The feds thanked the locals. The locals thanked each other and the feds.

“I want to give special thanks to our law enforcement partners,” said Pomona Police Chief Mike Olivieri.

(For the record, apart from Pomona PD, that includes the FBI’s San Gabriel Safe Streets Task Force, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the DEA, Ontario Police Department, the IRS Criminal Division, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Division.)

“Today’s action is not an isolated event. Southern California law enforcement is united in its fight against violent criminals and street gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, continuing the theme.

I’ve been to a dozen of these gang-conspiracy press conferences and I always like it when they thank each other. Because it wasn’t always that way.

Speaking with a prosecutor outside the press conference, we marveled at the change and wondered how the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s might have been avoided had this kind of collaboration been more common

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Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Southern California

My High School Reunion: Claremont

My 40th high school reunion is this Saturday. I’m going.

I’ve been to all my high school reunions. They’re fun. Kind of weird, awkward at times, but fun. I like to think of them as great social experiments. Seeing where people landed who started more or less in the same spot. Not quite like those 7 Up movies from Britain, but something like that.

I grew up in Claremont, a small college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It was a great place to grow up, if you overlooked the milk-chocolate smog covering the huge mountains nearby.

As years passed, I noted that I kept in far greater touch with friends from high school than folks whom I met later in life had kept in touch with theirs. John Kennedy, David Fissel, Scott Edwards, Sara Kaviar, Norman Gee, Paul Rohrer, Arthur Cain, Alison Cain, and a few others. I’ll see a few of these folks, though probably not all. They’re all doing well, scattered about.

With John, I went to my first rock concert: Mountain and Canned Heat at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium. 1974. That was a loud show, and Leslie West and the guys from Canned Heat sure were fat. Canned Heat’s singer wore big blue overalls with the word “Boogie” in rhinestones across the chest.

Around that time I was forming fierce, highly convincing arguments that Leslie West was the world’s greatest guitar player. I had a lot of those kinds of arguments back then. I also argued that Kiss would be a “where are they now” story by the time we graduated.

Years later, I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe playing guitar in the streets and plazas for money with Arthur Cain. That was a lot of fun. Good thing to do.

A few of my high school chums have died. Steve Arena and Phil Cornell passed not long after high school. I wish I could see them again.

One guy I haven’t seen almost since before graduation is Robert O’Conner. We were Buddhists together in a group called Nichirenshoshu Sokagakkai of America (NSA), where we chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

It’s from Japan but was pretty big in the states back in the 1970s when a lot of California suburban kids assumed that any eastern religion was cool and worth checking out. Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner were members.

I started when I had pretty long hair.

For NSA, I cut my hair. For a while I even tried to learn the bagpipes. I was also in a couple pageants – on the outfield of Angel Stadium and once at Dodger Stadium – that looked something like Up With People.

As a Buddhist organization, NSA was wary of appearing too eastern and mystical and weird, so it went the other way, wanting to assimilate into the squarest of American culture. Hence these pageants – dancing to show tunes on the Dodger outfield. For NSA during the USA Bicentennial, I literally marched in a nighttime parade up 6th Avenue in New York City dressed as a Minuteman with a three-corner hat and a suit lined with lights that were battery-powered and lit up in 4/4 time. No lie.

I was a Buddhist from end of my freshman year at CHS to my sophomore year in college, then I quit. I was happy to be in it when I was – helped me weather adolescence — and happy to leave it when I did.

Through Facebook, Robert tells me he’s got a nice husband and career as an artist in Hawaii, all of which makes me feel good. Looks like he’ll be at the reunion, so that’ll be nice.

I played basketball in high school, though not well. I didn’t improve the way I should have. Senior year was a tough one. Had a falling out with the coach, who never could pronounce my last name, but that wasn’t why we had a falling out. He resigned a year or two later, though not because of me. He went on to coach a college team that holds the distinction of being the only team to lose to the Cal Tech basketball team in the last 30 years or so.

Oh well. I still love the smell of wood-floor gyms. I still play basketball and I’m teaching my daughter, who’s 10.

Unlike most folks at the reunion, whom I suspect are close to grandparenthood, I’m just getting started in the fatherhood game. I’m liking it, though.

When I was young, Claremont was a guitar mecca. This was due to the influence of the 1960s/1970s, the five colleges in town, and a local music store: Claremont Folk Music Center, where I took my first guitar lessons (folk music, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”) from Dorothy Chase, who owned it with her husband, Charles. Ben Harper is their grandson.

(Claremont also had one of the first In-N-Outs, which taught us all what good fast food is.)

Claremont had(s) David Lindley and one of Emmylou Harris’s lead guitar players, whose brother was my guitar teacher later, after I learned to bend notes, which changed my life entirely. After I was taught that bending guitar notes was possible (Jimmy Reed, “Bright Lights Big City”), it seemed to suggest all kinds of things might be bent as well.

It wasn’t long before I was listening to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality on our family’s old record player over and over. And from there, many years later, to George Jones and Sun Ra. Guitar-note bending will do that.

I think I probably knew 20 people who played guitar. I kept playing, though not well. Three chords, maybe a minor 6th. Enough to play Rolling Stones songs. (Never a major seventh, though. I can’t stand that chord. Ever heard “Color My World” by Chicago? That starts with a major seventh.)

Anyway, the best guitar player in my class was a guy named Pebber Brown. Maybe I’ll see Pebber this reunion. When I want to, I can watch him teaching and  shredding away on Youtube.

Another guy, Martin Maudal, played some wicked drums in a band with Pebber, but now he makes guitars: Maudal Musical Machines. I think I’ll see Martin. Also, a guy from my class named Robert Elhai is a composer and writes soundtracks, last I heard anyway. Jim Earl and Barry Lank once had a pretty hip comedy duo. They were in my class – that’s Claremont High School, 1977.

Sid Robinson is a city councilman in Upland. We’re about that age now where some of us are city councilmen, or supervisors, or principals, or something in charge.

All in all, not a bad production for one high school class – and I’m leaving out a lot of folks.

I’ll be interested to see whether any of the girls I had crushes on show up. I remember, though, that that was a tormentingly large group, so probably some of them won’t. Not sure if my old girlfriend will or won’t.

Actually, I don’t know who’ll show up. Of course no one wants to go to a high school reunion on parole or something. A guy from the CHS year before mine aimed high and ripped off a Brinks Armored Car of $1 million. Very successful at his chosen trade, he was never seen again. So reunions tend to be kind of self-selecting. But then the really successful folks often have moved far away, so there’s that balancing it all out. Karen Huffman, our homecoming queen, ended up, last I saw her many years ago, as a curator at the Getty Museum. How many schools’ homecoming queens that you know ended up curating exhibits at major museums?

My grandfather, an illegitimate kid abandoned by his mother and thus an outcast in his Spanish village, always wanted to go home to show all the folks who’d treated him poorly that he’d made it in America, all by himself.

But the Depression, World War II, and the distance from Pennsylvania to Spain kept him from doing it. He (on the right in the photo) died in the 1950s, never having gone back.

I know that family reunions are huge business in Appalachia. That’s because so many have left the region, gone in search of work, yet don’t lose the connections to back home. Many go home every year, sometimes for months. West Virginia’s family-reunion business is massive, I was reading someplace. Same with Kentucky’s. Literally people do not lose touch with the place they left 50-60 years before.

So I have something in common with them.

Same with Mexican immigrants.

Years after high school, I lived in Mexico for a long time where I learned that they have their own version of these reunions – realizing yearly what my grandfather wanted to do just once but never could. They would return to their home villages for the annual fiesta, and throw huge parties, come dressed in fancy clothes. Usually it was the migrants who could afford to spend a lot of money who would go home. You didn’t want to go home poor-mouthing it. I remember they didn’t tell too many people back home about how hard they had to work to earn that money. (Mexican cops got used to shaking these folks down as they drove home. Highway 15 along Mexico’s Pacific Coast was a treasure-trove for cops.)

All that makes me think that the urge to go home and see everyone you grew up with is pretty universal – particularly if life’s been good.

ONE FINAL NOTE: That urge is a big reason why poor guys in Mexico get into drug trafficking. The kind of money you can make and the rep you develop are great ways of showing others back at the local fiesta how really well you’ve done, and of having other guys envy you, and of getting all the girls to want to talk to you. Especially if you’re buying beer for everyone in the plaza.

So maybe a high school reunion is really just like some get-together of local Mexican drug traffickers or an Appalachian family reunion.

I kind of like that way of thinking about it.

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Filed under California, Southern California

Community and CEOs

Folks who have heard me speak know that that community-building behavior by CEOs is something I admire and long for more of, nowadays particularly. Jack Brown, CEO of Stater Bros. Markets, is now my
hero.

A story in today’s LA Times reports the death of Mr. Brown, though folks in Southern California will recognize his comstater-brospany as a household brand name. We lived near a Stater Bros. Market when we were growing up and shopped there all the time.

Sadly, before his death, I was unaware of Brown’s story, of his philanthropy and decision to not move the company HQ from its base in San Bernardino, a tough town that didn’t need any more companies leaving. He founded the Boys and Girls club of San Bernardino and the Children’s Fund of San Bernardino.

Too often CEOs have their own wealth lining in mind. I’m reminded of the behavior of the CEO of Wells Fargo, who oversaw a lot of unethical stuff, then fired the mid-level folks who were allegedly ordered to perpetrate it, then retired with a $124 million paycheck.

The story of U.S. capitalism over the last generation or two is replete with guys behaving in this way. Shredded communities are the result. So is, if you ask me, our national opiate epidemic.

Communities, seems to me, are built by many people. But an important part of that are the decisions made by company owners and managers. Those decisions can crush, or enliven, a community. Too often, in the recent history of our country, it’s the former.

Sounds like Jack Brown retired fairly wealthy for doing the right thing. That’s the way it should be.

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Filed under Southern California, The Heroin Heartland

L.A. Murder – Not The Real Story Any More

It would have been easy to miss some stunning news a few days ago.

It came buried in the back pages of a December 30 LA Times article on how crime was rising. Rising across the board! First IMG_7311time since 2003! Yikes!

The real stunning story, though, was this:

The city will register only 280 homicides for all of 2015. That would seem sad, and for 280 victims and their families and friends, it most certainly is – I can say this as a reporter who has covered hundreds of murders in his career. I know how murder can destroy not just one life, but the lives of the surviving family as well.

To understand, however, why that number could actually be encouraging news, a remarkable event, you need the context. Here’s some:

Pitched as a 10 percent increase, 280 homicides is actually the city’s third lowest homicide figure since 2000 and part of a drop in crime that has been going on since roughly 2007. In fact, apart from 2013-2014, the city hasn’t had that few homicides since 1967, when L.A.’s population was a third smaller than it is today (roughly 2.4 million people then compared with 3.8 million today).

You’ll remember, perhaps, that in August there was a collective freak-out at the increase in homicides that month. I thought folks should have maintained some calm and context, and dealt with it seriously and professionally, which is what it appears LAPD proceeded to do. The rest of the year saw monthly homicide numbers fall again.

My guess is that in a heavily armed culture, and a very large city, we won’t see homicides dropping to, say, 200 a year. So it’s possible that we’re at about the lowest crime levels a city the size of L.A. can reasonably produce. I’d love to be proved wrong, but barring a deep change in our permissive gun culture or a massive tax increase doubling the size of the LAPD, I’d bet against it.

If those numbers crept up consistently year after year, that would be cause for great concern. But at this point, if crime figures rise 10 percent, or drop by that much, from one year to the next, it’s worth understanding and addressing with calm and context — but not frothing over.

I say this after, again, years as a crime reporter, and fully aware that some areas of the city, and of the region, still have serious problems and that these need attention.

Nor am I saying murder is okay if it’s below a certain number. Just that there are stories we ought also to pay attention to.

The real story is not that crime or homicide rose 10 percent.

The real story is that, while we witness blooms of intercultural savagery around the world, in our region of races, languages, and religions from every corner of the globe, crime has become negligible – a minor part of life and not just for wealthy folks, but, importantly and especially, for working people.

Some notorious headlines notwithstanding – yes, Rodney King, we can all get along and, by and large, in Southern California, we are. In the end, the 2015 homicide figures, as painful as they are for some families, did reflect that.

(Hate crime, btw, is almost nonexistent, certainly compared to the volume and the sheer violence of those crimes in the early and mid-2000s, most of them committed by Latino street gangs against blacks, which you can read more about in a chapter essay that I wrote for this anthology.)

The real story is that this drop in crime began during the country’s Great Recession, and is taking place in a region where poorly paid service jobs have replaced so many good-paying union jobs with solid benefits; where dense apartment complexes have replaced so many single-family homes.

The real story is how many working-class neighborhoods, where murder once stunted life and commerce, are now mercifully at peace, and property values are reflecting that.

And, above all, the real story  is that gang violence has dropped so precipitously. (Remember: L.A. used to have way more than 280 gang-related homicides, in years when total homicides topped a thousand.) And so has gangs’ public behavior that did so much to blight those working-class neighborhoods that could least afford their crap. Gangs no longer have the run of the region.

This morning I was out on a street that was notorious for its gang in the 1990s. I found it quiet, pleasant, unscarred by graffiti. On the contrary, the houses seemed improved, freshly painted – one of many such neighborhoods all across Southern California.

Later, I was in Lincoln Park, talking with Braulio Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who has owned La Guadalupana Market (pictured above) since 1988. Up to about decade ago, he said, gangs were everywhere in Lincoln Park. A few blocks away is a gang mural, apparently from the 1990s, that lists the members of the neighborhood crew, and giving an RIP to a few friends who didn’t make it. Now, Mr. Garcia told me,  he doesn’t see gangs or their graffiti at all.

Certainly lifted my spirits.

So on that note I’ll leave you, while daring to suggest that things are looking up, and hoping, meanwhile, that we have a Happy New Year, one and all.

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The Good, the Bad and the #100Days100Nights

Twitter is abuzz with word from South Central Los Angeles that either 1) a gang, angered at the shooting of a member is planning on killing a hundred people in a hundred days or 2) that two gangs have a bet to see which can kill the most people first.

I don’t know if either story is right. I suspect no one else does, either.

There certainly have been serious spates of shootings in areas in which these gangs operate.

But to me, this seems the downside to an otherwise very positive development in our SoCal gang world. Street gangs have moved off the street. This is a radical development, for our street gangs grew from the streets, took their names from streets, developed reputations based on how well they “defended” street they deemed “theirs.”IMG_9366

Now, in neighborhood after neighborhood, corner after corner, they are absent. Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, Highland Park, Compton – ancient gang towns or neighborhoods. Not any more, it seems from traveling their streets. To be sure, the phenomenon is less well felt in the black neighborhoods of South Central. But even there it’s nothing like it ever was at its worst, or even a few years after its worst.

Doesn’t mean gangs don’t feud. Doesn’t mean they’re not up to no good. It just means they aren’t as public, aren’t as much out on the street, in the parks, on the street corners – which is good, for  it allows those neighborhoods some room to breathe. That’s why property values in many of these neighborhoods are rising. Northeast LA is one very good example of that.

IMG_1780On the flipside, those who remain bonafide members, or maybe more likely those who aren’t, spend time prattling on, threatening others and boasting on social media – Facebook is full of them; so is Twitter. But going on social media requires a whole lot less dedication to the gang cause than staking out territory at a park or liquor store where your rivals know where to find you.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that gangs on social media is a benign thing.

Take the #100days100nights hashtag. Could be there’s truth to this hashtag. Could be there isn’t. Could be that people believe there is and act accordingly, by staying away from the areas where these gangs operate (Imperial to Florence, around Western). But it grows from the new space that gangs here have occupied, which is the virtual space. From there, the supposition is, it has spilled out onto the streets.

Whatever the truths, it bears mention that myths and misunderstandings have long fueled gang life in L.A. The Mexican Mafia, in an attempt to stop drive-by shootings, which it viewed as harmful to its drug business, said a member’s child had been killed in a drive-by. Latino gangs took that seriously.

IMG_0569Among the Florencia 13 gang (one of the largest Latino gangs in SoCal) rumor circulated that blacks had hijacked a load of dope that belonged to the Mexican Mafia member from Florencia.

True? Who knows?

But Florencia then went on a multi-year campaign (2004-07 more or less) to shoot black men – crimes well documented in a federal trial a few years later.

So this hashtag is part of a tradition, just amplified by the power of, and lack of accountability inherent in, social media.

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South Gate Rising – my N.Y. Times column

I came to South Gate for the first time in 1997 and 1998 to write about Chalino Sanchez, the slain narcocorrido singer whose career began at El Parral, a narco-music club in the town.

In 2000, I returned as South Gate was pioneering the outrageous and crummy PRI-style politics that stained the newly Latino cities southeast of L.A. for the following decade. I left the town a few weeks later gravely concerned that the implications of the emergence of a Latino majority would mean the same kind of insane, mutant politics would spread to all of Southern California.

So I’m very happy to be able to write the column that appears in today’s New York Times about South Gate and the changes that I perceive in the southeast cities – some more than others, but all connected to a general acceptance by Mexican immigrants of their future and place in this country.

The Saga of South Gate, btw, became a chapter in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. The political culture that emerged there over four municipal election cycles was based, as I say in my NYT column, on preposterous, looney campaign fliers that were nonetheless believed by many voters in that town.

I’ve included below a slideshow of some of those fliers for the historical record and to give an idea of how wacky things got. These are mostly from the 2001 municipal election in which Albert Robles and his cronies won a council majority. For the full story, check out the chapter in my book.

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As a legend passes, a Walmart in Compton?

A legendary Compton indoor swap meet is closing this week, and vendors say they believe it will be replaced by a Walmart.

Snapseed Compton Fashion Center Dresses BWThe Compton Fashion Center, 2100 N. Long Beach Blvd., closes Thursday after 32 years, during which time it revolutionized immigrant business formation in Southern California.

In a tersely worded December 1 letter to vendors, some of whom had been in the CFC since it opened, the owner, Soo Lee, told them they had 30 days to get out.  That deadline was later extended another two weeks – leaving this Thursday as the day when the lights go out.

Shortly before Christmas, the center put up large signs announcing a “Close Out Sale” – and thanking customers for years of patronage – that vendors had not agreed to. Vendors say this left them with little time or opportunity reduce inventory and find a new location.

Of several CFC merchants I spoke with, all said they believe the space will be occupied by a Walmart, though the owner, Soo Lee, has said nothing about his plans for the enormous space. So this may be rumor as much as anything.

Walmart did not confirm a new store at the Compton swap meet. But the company didn’t quite deny one in the future, either. Here’s the statement a spokeswoman emailed me:

“While we are always looking for ways to better serve our Compton customers, we don’t have any new projects to announce.”

Okay. Still leaves the question of what will go into the center that was making the owner push the vendors out so abruptly after so many years in business.

Walmart last summer put a store in the new azalea Shopping Center in South Gate, four milIMG_1919es away, and traffic was so heavy the store wasn’t able to keep its shelves stocked for the first few weeks, according to a shopping center spokeswoman.

Of course, Walmart has also had problems locating inner-city stores in Southern California. Inglewood famously turned away the giant retailer, fearing it would lay waste to numerous mom-and-pop merchants.

“If Walmart comes, all the merchants on Long Beach Boulevard and around here will be wiped out,” said Kirk Kim, owner of Cycadelic Records, which has rented space near a swap meet entrance since CFC opened.

Compton Fashion Center opened in the space of what had been a Sears in 1983. It was the first large Korean-owned indoor swap meet in Southern California.

With that, in a region then becoming a magnet for immigrants from across the world, the indoor swap meet idea took off. Swap meets became a safe place for immigrants, speaking little English and without much capital, to wedge into a cranny of the American Dream.

Compton Fashion Center, in particular, drew people from all over with, in its heyday, 300 vendors selling jewelry, Photo Jan 12, 1 18 21 PMmakeup, music, cellphones, groceries and clothe.

“The holy grail of the hood,” one Yelp customer called it.

At Cycadelic Records in the 1980s, Kirk Kim’s father, the late Wan Joon Kim, and mother, Boo Ja  — Korean immigrants who spoke little English – became the first to sell and promote the gangster rap then emerging from Compton garages. The couple, known as Pops and Mama, sold the first records by NWA frontman Eazy E, and dozens of other rappers that grew to chronicle the city’s crack-and-gang nightmare, as West Coast gangster rap became an international phenomenon. His shop and the center have been in numerous rap music videos.

But a lot has changed since then. National retailers have discovered the hood. Whether the indoor swap meet is slowly fading away is an open question.

Kirk Kirk believe the CFC owners have been keeping vendors out with an eye to attracting to a big-box retailer. Whatever the case, he said, foot traffic has dropped along with the number of vendors.

Last week, the center was slowly emptying. Stalls sat abandoned. Owners were boxing product and sweeping the floors.

“It’s sad. These folks are like my family,” he said. “I see these people more than I see my sister.”

Photos: Kirk Kim; t-shirts and dresses in booths at Compton Fashion Center.

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Is This How Gangs End?

I’m very proud of my cover story in the January’s edition of Pacific Standard Magazine about the decline of gang violence and gang presence in Southern California.gangs-illo

I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.

It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.

These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.

Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.

Anyway, I hope you like the piece. Daily Beast selected it as one of the Best Longreads of the Week – so that was nice….Let me know what you think, please.

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Todo Se Olvida – Everything Gets Forgotten

Riverside Casa Blanca 4Out in Riverside the other day, I took a trip with police through Casa Blanca, just off the 91 Freeway.

Casa Blanca is one of the classic Mexican-American barrios of Southern California, named for a large white mansion on a hill a half-mile east of it and a brand of oranges. The area is still bordered by some orange groves.

It has fascinated me for many years, ever since the great Calvin Trillin wrote a masterful piece about it for the New Yorker, which he later included in his book, Killings. This is probably the best volume of crime reporting in American journalism. I’ve read Killings four times, I think.

Anyway, “Todo Se Paga” – Everything Gets Paid – told the story of the feud between the Ahumada and Lozano families in the insulated barrio that was itself like a small town, quite apart from the rest of Riverside. Police, in particular, were unwelcome. Only a few years ago, officers who went there still risked being hit with rocks, and neighbors would at times start bonfires in the middle of the streets.

Madison Street is the barrio’s dividing line – east of that was the Lozano family and west of that lived the Ahumadas.

Casa Blanca’s story was very un-Southern Californian – a rooted place, where houses were not only inherited but lived in by generations. Unlike most of the region, history mattered and people remembered and things lingered.

In 1992, after a police officer killed a notorious member of the Ahumadas – Georgie – the police chief of Riverside told the LA Times that the department had no vendetta against any of the families out in Casa Blanca.

“We’re not killing them–they’re killing each other,” he said. “If we really (sought) revenge, and wanted to carry it to its extreme, the best thing we could do is sit back and do nothing because they’ll eventually kill each other.”

Over the years, it all got very complicated, with people intermarrying but at the same time feuding, and having to choose sides. Eventually it devolved into two gangs – Fern Street (Ahumada) and Evans Street (Lozano) gangs. For years the gangs that grew from this feud were known for their violence.Riverside Casa blanca 6

Then about three years ago, it all stopped. Graffiti, feuding just ended. There hasn’t been a major crime incident in Casa Blanca for a while now, I’m told.

One cop I toured with said he thought it had to do with an order from drug-trafficking groups that the violence was attracting police attention and getting in the way of business.

That seems a likely possibility, something that’s happened elsewhere in Southern California as well.

But it also seems to me that the world finally came to Casa Blanca, too. A lot of the old families have died, or moved away, or are doing time. Many new residents are from other countries, including Mexico and Central America, and aren’t invested in, or care about, the barrio history.

I went by Ahumada’s Market. An Indian man has owned it for 10 years. There’s a Korean church on Madison, along with a library branch. A Korean man owns a market nearby as well.

Maybe in the rapid-fire change of economics, real estate and culture in Southern California, in contrast to other other parts of the world I could name, it’s more accurate to say that “Todo Se Olvida” – Everything Gets Forgotten.

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Fashion District drug money laundering

L.A., and the Fashion District in particular, is the “epicenter” of narcodollar money laundering, mostly by Mexican drug cartels, said authorities at a press conference today.

They came together from the FBI, DEA, IRS and US Attorney’s office to announce a bunch of arrests in the Fashion District early Wednesday and describe a scheme through which dollars are laundered into pesos.download

In one location, they came upon boxes of cash that they expected would total $35 million when they were done counting, which they weren’t by midday. They seized another $19 million in bank accounts and $10 million at a house in Bel-Air – $65 million in all.

Among all that’s interesting in this topic is the fact that virtually all of this takes place within the immigrant economic ecosystem in L.A., which has long fascinated me as it basically involves almost no native-born Americans. In this case, mostly Chinese sewing-company owners were doing business with Mexican drug traffickers.

Apparently these exchanges with Fashion District businesses on behalf of drug traffickers has become a popular way of laundering money ever since 2010 when Mexico put strict controls on the quantities of dollars that could be deposited in its banking system without being reported.

Used to be traffickers would just pack stack of dollars into a car and drive home. Now putting that money somewhere isn’t as easy. Hence this new Black Market Peso Exchange scheme.

Basically, it works thus: traffickers in the US with ill-gotten bucks find a peso broker – someone whose job it is to search out companies already selling goods into Mexico. A trafficker delivers large quantities of these dollars to Fashion District companies to pay for massive deliveries of clothes down to Mexican clothing importers who are in the scam.

“The cash never crosses the border, but the goods do,” said Robert Dugdale, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s criminal division in L.A. The Fashion District firm sends the clothes to a clothing importer in Mexico. The clothes are sold for pesos and the pesos are given to the cartel traffickers, after the broker takes a cut for himself.

A lot of this appears to depend on Fashion District clothing companies with owners who are willing to say nothing when some guy shows up with a duffel bag of cash, using only a nickname as ID.

Homeland Security had previously sent out notices to 160 companies in the district, telling them of U.S. legal reporting requirements for cash. The selection of which companies were notified “was not random,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations here.

Apparently this scheme has sent floods of cash through the Fashion District. Be interesting to see after all this what happens to some of these companies.

One Fashion District company – Q.T. Fashions on 12th Street – allegedly laundered $140,000 in ransom money for the kidnapping of a cartel courier, a U.S. citizen, whose load of cocaine was confiscated by law enforcement. To get repaid, members of the Sinaloa Cartel kidnapped him, took him down to Mexico, tortured him and got the family to take the ransom money to QT Fashions, which allegedly got the cash down to Mexico. The hostage was eventually freed.

Photos: Stashes of cash; Source: US Attorney’s office

 

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The Corner of the Virgin: 41st and Broadway

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No corner of the city appears better protected than 41st and Broadway in South Central LA.

There are five virgin murals on three buildings at one corner, and another two on a mini-market a block away.

“We’ve put up flowers and kind of modern rock n roll paintings,” said a woman named Dolores, from Guatemala, who was behind the plexiglass at the mini-market.

“But the cholos come and spray-paint them. So we had the Virgins painted. They’re not cheap – one cost $800 and the other $500. But the cholos respect them.”

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Faustino Diaz: Trombone master from Oaxaca in L.A.

Faustino Diaz, the Oaxacan trombone master, returns to Los Angeles this weekend for a concert at the Ukrainian Hall, 4315 Melrose Ave., this Sunday at 2 p.m.

Diaz thrilled Mexico last year when he won the International Trombone Competition in South Korea.1511733_908562385837387_4934257276349175473_n

A few days later he visited the Pico-Union District and the music school run by director Estanislao Maqueos, who has used his school to organize Oaxacan youth orchestras.

There, I had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his life, and having to venture out into the world to find his music like a migrant finds a future.

The interview is above and in Spanish.

Check out the concert. Should be good.

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Barefoot Triqui Indian BB players in town

 

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The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.

The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.

A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.

The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.

Since then, the boys, playing barefoot, have become something of international stars. They won a tournament in Argentina. They’ve toured Orlando and played the San Antonio Spurs barefoot in Mexico City, winning 10-4.

IMG_5957The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”

The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.

“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”

Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.

The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.

“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”

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