A march through downtown Los Angeles on Friday, April 25 was an excellent reminder of how L.A. is divided by race and class.
I joined between 700 and 1,000 marchers, who were mostly janitors and renters of slum apartments in Westlake, just west of downtown. Many of the marchers fit into both categories. They were low paid janitors who lived in the packed old apartments. They wanted better pay and protection for tenants like themselves, who are being forced out by landlords and developers determined to upscale the area.
The idea of two L.A.s, one affluent the other struggling, is not new. Long before Sen. John Edwards built a presidential campaign on the concept of “Two Americas,” LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick proposed a series for the Los Angeles Times on Two L.A.s, one affluent the other poor.
Roderick was a reporter in the Times City-County Bureau in the ‘80s when he came up with the project. I, the bureau chief, thought it was a great idea. Roderick did preliminary interviews and other research and wrote a detailed memo laying out the concept. The City-County Bureau reporters, who had been digging into the social, economic and racial forces that were dividing Los Angeles, would collaborate on the project.
Our bosses quickly rejected Roderick’s idea. In fact, I was urged to shift our coverage to issues affecting the middle class. Such bad decisions should be noted by those mourning the long passed “great old days” at the Times. A lot of those days were not so great.
Life went on. The city was ripped apart by the 1992 riot, and we finally got around to reporting on Two L.A.s
I thought of that as I joined the marchers gathering at the headquarters of Service Employees Local 1877, which is organizing the Justice for Janitors campaign for better wages and working conditions. Other groups were involved, including the ACORN organization, the Los Angeles Housing Partnership, the LA Alliance for a New Economy. and UNITE HERE, Local 11. Together, they comprise the progressive activist wing of Los Angeles politics, fighting to make themselves heard in a city hall dominated by land developers and downtown business interests.
The janitors wore purple and gold (Lakers colors) and red and black t-shirts. We walked west on Seventh Street toward downtown. We stopped at the forbidding glass and concrete fortress of a city building, headquarters for the city housing department. Officials had refused an invitation to speak to the marchers and the appearance of the building conveyed a simple message: Keep Out. Security guards reinforced the message.
We crossed the bridge above the Harbor Freeway, the highway that permits people to travel from downtown to the harbor without noticing the poor South L.A. neighborhoods on either side. We passed the Wilshire Grand hotel, passed Roy’s the hot restaurant famous for small but delicately prepared dishes at high prices. We passed shops and went through an underground mall, with more stores. Office and store workers on their lunch hours watched the marchers. Perhaps they realized they had more in common with the marching men and women than they did with their bosses in the executive suites.
The rich own the buildings and run the law firms, accounting companies and other enterprises in them. Affluent property owners who, in some cases, have been given valuable exemptions from city building laws are developing new apartment houses and tearing down older ones.
In addition to better wages for janitors, the marchers asked that every apartment unit torn down be replaced by an equally affordable unit. They also want stepped up enforcement of laws against illegal eviction and an increase in the number of building inspectors in the Westlake MacArthur Park area. Finally, they’re asking that the city, state and federal governments make more money available to build affordable housing.
Next time you walk or drive through the area and see the apartments or consider the working conditions of janitors at your market or in your building, you’ll have to agree this agenda makes a lot of sense.