Some people say “South Central.” Others prefer “South L.A.” And still others use both names to describe the neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway that run alongside the 110 – historically one of the most poor and violent areas of Los Angeles. Ten years after city officials changed the name “South Central” to “South Los Angeles” in hopes of alleviating the neighborhood’s negative stigma, Intersections is gauging current opinion. We are asking residents, politicians, community leaders and others: What do the names mean to you? And how has South L.A. changed over the past decade?
History professor Josh Sides saw the name change as a “superficial moment in history,” he told Intersections. Still, he believes names can carry great weight. Sides, who teaches at Cal State Northridge, is the author of “L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present” and the editor of the anthology, “Post-Ghetto: Reimagining South Los Angeles.” Read on for our interview.
Josh Sides: It wasn’t quite as political as you might think. In fact, the idea was brought to the Los Angeles City Council by a group of concerned mothers. So it was not handed down from on high, but was rather a grassroots effort to rename a community which they accurately believed was maligned simply by the association of “South Central.” I am very sympathetic to their goal, to that group of mothers who had seen so much horror and so much tragedy in their communities and in their families.
Does the name “South L.A.” lose any historical connotations?
Taking out “Central” actually disconnects the name from the Black history from which it emanated. Central Avenue was, of course, the heart of African American cultural life in the 1920s all the way through the 1960s, and a bit into the ‘70s. By getting the Central out of there, you take out the Black history part of it, although perhaps that makes some sense given the predominantly Latino community. But from a historical perspective they lost something that was important because we had prominent African Americans in Los Angeles talking about South Central Avenue back in 1908, 1909 — and talking about it with great pride.
Did the name change have an effect on South L.A.?
I don’t think you can tie much to the name change at all. I tend to regard it as a pretty superficial moment in history — one for which I have great sympathy but not as a causal factor for anything. If you really want to understand what’s driving change in South L.A., it’s immigration, it’s investment, it’s regional economy. And these things are happening in other communities throughout the country.
What kind of effect do you think the name change had on residents?
I take it on faith that there were many people for whom the name change meant something really important. It meant that they had shed this stereotype of a community in endless violence, unemployment, poverty, dysfunctional families, drug abuse and all that. So, the psychological benefits that residents derived from that is not something anyone has measured, and I can only imagine that they’re fairly substantial. But I cannot make the connection between the psychological benefits and the material changes. The material changes are happening entirely on a separate track from that psychological benefit.
Any thoughts on the declining crime rate?
The whole discussion about the declining crime rates has nothing to do with naming. The decline in homicides that occurred after 2003 was part of the nationwide trend. Crime and homicides peaked in the early 1990s and continued to decline in California and elsewhere that has to do with other factors — sentencing, intervention, policing strategies. Those are the things that changed those outcomes, not a new name.
What’s the best example of how South L.A. has changed in the past ten years?
Immigration. It went from being a mostly Black community to being a community whose neighborhoods were once exclusively Black and are now minority Black and majority Latino. (And when we talk about South L.A. it’s very broad.)
What are the implications of the new demographics?
There are some real implications beyond just the color of the skin of the residents. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me but are perhaps more clear to labor economists, Latino males tend to have a higher rate of labor force participation and there’s probably also a fair amount of the kind of family economy that, in fact, Blacks used when they first moved here in the 1940s — large families living together and pooling their resources. So, between the higher employment rate of Latinos and these family economic networks, I think you’re seeing a lot more dynamism economically in South L.A. than you would have.
Do you think there is anything in common with the renaming of South Central and the renaming of stretches of Compton Boulevard? As you’ve written in your article “Straight into Compton,” by the late 1980s, many surrounding neighborhoods had changed the name of Compton Boulevard because the word “Compton” had become “so powerfully suggestive, so notorious.”
Yes, but the situation in Compton was more dramatic. You had half a dozen cities erasing any memory of the word Compton on a number of boulevards. People presume that Compton, because of its name, won’t know how to handle financing… that it will fail. I think to this day that city has trouble because of that name.
So, I don’t dispute at all that a name can make a big difference, and I think Compton is a great example of that. I don’t think that the case of changing South Central to South L.A. made a difference. I’m not convinced that changing it to Camelot would have made a difference.
Can you describe a specific way where a name change could be important?
Investment, that’s not insignificant. If you look at efforts both from the State of California and from the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, there were efforts to create enterprise and empowerment zones — zones in which businesses that moved into these communities would enjoy fairly substantial tax breaks. And the programs failed largely because I suspect that the developers couldn’t quite get over the notion that South L.A. was South L.A. If they were totally ignorant of the history of the region and called it something different, it’s conceivable that some of those investors would have come onboard. But I think that’s pretty unlikely because they do such wonderful market research and demographic research that they know what’s going on there.
In the Compton case, was it the areas just around Compton where the name was changed – not Compton itself?
Right. That was the curious thing… even the unincorporated part of East Compton that had been the worst part of Compton, ironically, it changed its name to “Rancho Dominguez.” That’s ironic given the fact that it was the place where most of the homicides and drugs occurred. Even they didn’t want to be associated with Compton. The city of Compton got left holding the bag for what had been East Compton and is now Rancho Dominguez.
So the juxtaposition made the other parts look better. Does it all come down to semantic tricks?
It often needs to be put in context of endless tricks of real estate. I mean, you can look at any part of L.A. and clearly observe that neighborhoods are created purely for the cache the new name will give it.
Out here in the San Fernando Valley where I teach at Northridge, Van Nuys used to just be Van Nuys. Now it’s Lake Balboa and then there’s Van Nuys, and people are very clear to indicate which portion they live in. I live in Woodland Hills and I thought it was just Woodland Hills until a real estate agent said that I lived south of the boulevard and that was a major distinction from living north of the boulevard. So there are countless real estate tricks and L.A. has pioneered probably more than any other city.