The other day, I was out in Pomona – 40 miles east of Los Angeles — and took a swing by what was once one of the region’s most notorious parks.
In south Pomona, it was for years officially called Madison Park, but known to everyone around as Sharkie Park. The 12th Street gang, which dates to the 1940s, had its territory nearby, took the nickname the Sharkies and used the park as its main hangout.
Gang members who killed were allowed to get a shark tattoo. They feuded famously and endlessly with Cherryville, another Pomona neighborhood gang. They were among four Pomona gangs targeted last year by a federal task force in Operation Dirty Thirds.
Today, the park is an emblem of how gang culture has retreated in Southern California.
Madison (Sharkie) Park was rechristened Tony Cerda Park, for a local Chicano activist. From Facebook, I’m seeing that it occasionally has exercise classes. Police I spoke with can’t remember the last shooting there — a remarkable fact. Indeed, the park was quiet, with only an elderly fellow riding by on a bike.
I spent some time driving around 12th Street and I found what I’ve found in other once-notorious gang neighborhoods.
No one hanging out. No graffiti.
Blank walls everywhere. The only sign that graffiti was once there is what appears to be a floodwaters stain about seven feet high, which is about as high as gangsters could reach with a spray can. It’s where wall owners, or the city, had to paint up to to cover the graffiti.
After that, the wall slightly changes color. You can see this in these pictures.
This is the new sign of Southern California’s change – this floodwater look, as if seven feet of water was once here and has receded. (Beneath it, you can bet, are layers and layers of graffiti alternating with beige or white paint, going back decades.)
You see this everywhere. It’s a hopeful mark. It means that the scourge that once drowned working-class neighborhoods has departed.
I have no idea if Pomona 12th Street still exists and, if so, in what form; nor do I know what’s happened to their feud with Cherryville. I can say that whatever they’re up to, they no longer are visible on the streets where they gained their reputation. So homeowners no longer have to invest in painting over their graffiti.
Southern California still has some pockets where gangs are an issue. But they’re the exception now.
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.
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.
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.