Today is the 20th anniversary of the LA “Rodney King” Riots that began, visibly, on television news showing footage from helicopters of rioters attacking cars at the intersection of Florence Ave & Normandie Ave in South Los Angeles (at the time more commonly called South Central). Two weeks ago I visited the intersection to experience the location and reflect on the event, taking the LA Metro five miles South from where I live in West Adams. The intersection is a typical cross roads with franchise stores on the corners, about six lanes per street converging, and cars alternatively lining up as green lights turn to red. I tweeted the experience while sitting for a while on the Northwest side of the intersection, at a grassy plantern area that surrounds an AutoZone sign. I had meant the trip to be an isolated personal experience until Adam Liszkiewicz, who was following my tweets (and photos I was linking to), pointed out a relationship between the intersection and my last essay, here on NMDnet in January, 2012, about downtown New York City “dead spaces” that were created by police in response to Occupy Wall Street. This trip was now the second in a series.
While standing at the historical but otherwise nondescript Florence & Normandie intersection, the relationship between this intersection and downtown New York City wasn’t immediately apparent. In New York, urban spaces were made “dead” by police action–baracades, police presence, mobile command stations–and are clearly marked as such. Here in LA, the intersection is like any other: many cars pass by; commerce continues in the form of a couple gas stations, an AutoZone, and a convenience store; and a few people walk by. Upon closer inspection, however, there is connection between the two locales, albeit an inverse one. The dead spaces in New York City are created by barriers to financial buildings. At Florence & Normandie, the barriers are created by day-to-day activities. Most passing through this intersection are doing just that, and by car, and three of the four corners of the intersection are in support of that, as a place to consume gas and car parts. This dead space has been created by the developed “normal” American urban economy that supports a lifestyle of movement through decayed areas, not to it. Supporting this land use design are the same authority structures that people rose up against in 1992, that siphon taxes from homeowners in areas such as this along racial lines to create redevelopment elsewhere, while giving back to the community with occasional repaving and, of course, business incentives to Chevron and 76.
Then-USC professor (now Lewis and Clark College President) Barry Glassner visited a decade ago, in 2003, with Michael Moore while filming Moore’s movie Bowling for Columbine. The film is about guns, so Moore came to a place with a reputation for murder. Glassner dispelled this myth with a simple truth: you are more likely to die from the air quality at the intersection of Florence & Normandie than by a bullet. In the video clip below (queued to their scene together), you’ll see the camera pan to a view very close to the photo above (with the AutoZone also present). As Glassner and Moore get at, our culture fears the immediate and therefore prosecutes killers with guns and reacts to situations with guns, but we as a whole make little attempt to prosecute polluters whose effects cumulate over much longer periods of time. In his film, Moore relates the riots to fear–of blacks and the inner city–claiming that American’s kill each other with guns more than any other country because we want to keep people away from each other. Standing at the intersection myself, like the two in the film I felt no fear of the people walking by. But I could still feel separation: at the moment, red lights had cars stopped on all four sides. People were idling individually in their cars, waiting to pass through.
Of the four corners of Florence & Normandie, two contain gas stations. Another is an AutoZone. The fourth holds a market/liquor store and a Subway. There is one more element, from above; as I discovered when looking at the cache of photos I had taken, almost every photo had an airplane in the background. Airplanes fly over the intersection at about every 30 seconds to one minute, some small but most large International flights with corresponding noise. This route to LAX over the neighborhood was chosen because it had to be, with LAX situated to the West of the intersection. The airport developed from a small airfield in the 1930s to a large International Airport because it had to, geographically and because of the burgeoning population (LA city bought the airport in 1937). As the argument goes, if people don’t like the noise, then people will find some place else to live (“No one is making you live here“). But I don’t think people find it too annoying, not enough to leave. In fact, I live under such a flight path (albeit only from airplanes coming from the West before they turn to land), and can say, it’s not that bad. You get used to it. But perhaps this movement to the subliminal is the embodiment of the message of dominance, from the corporate machines above, that tells the population here that some day they will be up there–to have made it. Hope.
76 gas station, Southwest corner
A plane flies over the intersection
Like many neighborhoods in South Los Angeles, the area surrounding Florence & Normandie includes houses with unique architecture and visible signs of pride in homeownership. It is not uncommon to see well manicured gardens, fences, and porches, even on the busy avenues. There is also decay. Absentee owners rent out houses and spend little on maintenance, or worse, tear down houses to build cinder block apartments. This street, Normandie Ave, has a mixture of both, but also includes the usual street staples: it has sidewalks, parkway grass strips, and space for cars to park. It is walkable. It is, of course, drivable. It is a shining example of assumption and status quo by city planners and developers. This particular part of the neighborhood begins with a Chevron sign stating the current rate of Regular Unleaded.
On my trip I spoke with a few people on the street. Our moods were good, and the general vibe was concerned and stressed (about the general state of things), yet positive. Even with the horrors of the 1992 Riots, there was positive change afterward: the LAPD are doing their part to create a culture of service not fear. Other outcomes, particularly related to institutional racism, are debatable, but at least they are in conversation. Other economic factors were involved: in 1992 poorer people in South Central boiled over in part because they were being fleeced by richer people with the support of the governments and LAPD; taxes were collected on communities in South LA and then used for development projects elsewhere, with brutal police beatings to back them up. This abuse by government and LAPD has thawed since then, so now, twenty years later, what are positive changes specific to this neighborhood?
At the intersection, the gas stations are busy, and so is the AutoZone–there is commerce here. But for each transaction at these establishments by local residents, money is being siphoned off to corporate headquarters elsewhere. This money is not being returned, because, as we know, these companies are recording record profits that are being hoarded into global investment portfolios whose dividends have little chance of trickling down to the people of Florence & Normandie. We have, as a community of consumers, allowed one type of fleecing to be replaced with another. In 1992, the community rioted around a specific issue that was emblematic of exploitation by outside institutions. As we publicly recognize this 20th anniversary, the businesses that line Florence & Normandie quietly highlight the little that has been done to correct this systemic problem that keeps us bound to business as usual.