On my way to the police station, I hear a shooting come over the hand-held scanner I keep under the passenger seat beside me. It turns out to be what police call a car-to-car in front of Bret Harte Middle School. Both vehicles are gone. There are three shell casings on the ground.
Overseeing the investigation is a Southeast division sergeant I haven't met before. Sgt. Ricky Johnson is a tall, barrel-chested black officer with large hands, talkative and at ease. He tells me he grew up in the 77th division, that his parents were from Arkansas, that he was "really country" when he first moved to L.A. as a kid.
There are a handful of officers like this in South Bureau, many of them black: people who grew up in the same neighborhoods they now police. Johnson tells me about a trip he took back to Arkansas and how he searched for the well his parents had drawn water from there. Then he starts talking about his adolescence in the 60s. He means not the decade, but the 10 blocks of L.A. between West 60th Street and West 69th Street, home to one of the area's more notorious black gangs and a world away from rural Arkansas. Today, as an LAPD sergeant, Johnson earns a salary considerably above the local median. He is upper-middle-class.
I am interested in Johnson's story because I've been trying to put together my own informal history of black Los Angeles. Some of the black people I meet here have roots in Arkansas and Texas. But most of them seem to hail from a single state: Louisiana.
The Louisianans are everywhere, and they are still coming. I occasionally meet newcomers from Lake Charles or Shreveport. Louisiana Fried Chicken is one of the more popular fast-food chains in South Los Angeles, and Southern-style "You buy, we fry" fish shops are also big. (And the fish is very good.) As far as I can tell, the accent that some West Coast whites think of as black is straight bayou. People even seem to drive more slowly in South Los Angeles than in the rest of the city, and when I went to Louisiana recently, I saw this in a new light: Road signs there actually urge drivers to go faster.
Of course, black Los Angeles is rapidly changing. Watts, Compton, South Central—all these places people think of as traditionally black—are now less than 50 percent African-American. Blacks are heading for suburban Riverside County, and impoverished Mexican and Salvadoran migrants are moving in, making the same leap from subsistence farming to a modern economy.
So the community I write about is not uniformly poor and stagnant but restless and varied. It's hard to convey the tranquility and normalcy of these neighborhoods—the skateboarding kids, the Pizza Huts, the garage sales—while still presenting a truthful picture of their crime problems.
In fact, what many people in Los Angeles think of as this city's "bad neighborhoods" are in many ways indistinguishable from those with milder reputations. They brim with aspiration and middle-class comfort, even as they distill every kind of despair. I pass blocks of graffiti on Slauson Avenue in the morning before stopping in at the bright new Western Avenue Starbucks, inevitably full of well-dressed commuters listening to cutting-edge blues. This is just northwest of where the 1992 riots broke out, and the area is now booming, construction everywhere: a new Gigante grocery store, a new Subway sandwich shop. But just across the street is the permanent swap meet where a shootout broke out recently amid a crowd in daylight.
Not far to the east is Budlong Avenue, where last week I covered two homicides in 12 hours. As I stood near the yellow tape at the second homicide, talking to neighbors, one told me that homes on Budlong have increased more than 50 percent in value in the past year. He had just bought his for $215,000, he said, and the previous owner had paid $140,000 just a year ago. This proud buyer spoke of the homicide scene a few yards away as distantly as if it were on the other end of the city.
Midmorning, I go to a shooting scene south of Manchester Boulevard where a man in his 30s had died under mysterious circumstances. At the crime scene, there is a pool of blood, two discarded handguns, and a pager. All around are pretty houses and tropical plants: One yard features a banana tree, something I have never seen before anywhere in Los Angeles. Onlookers say they had few clues to give police: The block is so safe that residents did not recognize the sound of a gunshot and didn't come out in time.
Later, I go east of the Harbor Freeway to try to find family members of a murder victim from last week. They aren't around. But a Latino neighbor with a heavy accent tells me he just moved in and is unconcerned about the homicide just up the street. He tells me he came from a neighborhood in Fontana, a place outside the city I know nothing about. He's beaming. South Central is a big move up.