For $65, Tourists Get Peek at Los Angeles Gangland

Thomas Watkins, Forbes, January 17, 2010

Only miles from the scenic vistas and celebrity mansions that draw sightseers from around the globe–but a world away from the glitz and glamour–a bus tour is rolling through the dark side of the city’s gang turf.

Passengers paying $65 a head Saturday signed waivers acknowledging they could be crime victims and put their fate in the hands of tattooed ex-gang members who say they have negotiated a cease-fire among rivals in the most violent gangland in America.

If that sounds daunting, consider the challenge facing organizers of LA Gang Tours: trying to build a thriving venture that provides a glimpse into gang life while also trying to convince people that gang-plagued communities are not as hopeless as movies depict.

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More than 50 people brushed aside safety concerns for Saturday’s maiden tour to hear how notorious gangs got started and bear witness to the struggling neighborhoods where tens of thousands of residents have been lured into gang life.

The unmarked chartered coach wound its way through downtown. The first sight was a stretch of concrete riverbed featured in such movies as “Terminator” and “Grease,” where countless splotches of gray paint conceal graffiti that is often the mark of street gangs and tagging crews.

After that, it was on to the Central Jail, home to many a thug, past Skid Row’s squalor and homeless masses and into South Los Angeles, breeding ground for some of the city’s deadliest gangs.

Motoring through an industrial area, the bus enters the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, close to the birthplace of the Crips and current home to Florencia 13, a Latino gang that was accused by federal prosecutors of racist attacks against black residents.

Gray warehouses soon merge with single-story stucco homes as the bus heads south. Few gangsters risk hanging out on street corners, as local rules mean they could get arrested even for congregating, but graffiti on walls, road signs and convenience storefronts betray the presence of Florencia 13 and other gangs.

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Lomas, 45, [Alfred Lomas, a former member of the Florencia 13, founder of LA Gang Tours] a respected activist who has worked with the faith-based Los Angeles Dream Center to distribute hundreds of tons of food to low-income families across the inner city, left gang life about five years ago.

He stresses the aim of his nonprofit company is to bring jobs to communities along the route and to reinvest money through micro-loans and scholarships, though he’s not sure how the tour will accomplish that. He also eventually wants to start a gallery and gang museum.

He said the tour will create 10 part-time jobs, mainly for ex-gang members working as guides and talking about their own struggles and efforts to reduce violence. The tour is initially scheduled to run once a month.

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Out of sensitivity to residents, passengers are banned from shooting photographs or video from the bus. The only place that is allowed is near the end of the trip, when they can step off the bus and film an outdoor area where graffiti is allowed.

Stretches of the tour have almost nothing to do with gangs, but instead exploit famous chapters of violence in the city’s history, such as a deadly 1974 shootout between police and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the site of the riots that followed the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating.

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