Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Florence and Normandie, 17 Years Later

It looked just like any other intersection.

Two corners had gas stations, one corner an AutoZone, the other corner, a liquor store, adjoining a Subway sandwich shop.

But the liquor store, on the northeast corner, was the sole visual reference to what transpired at this intersection 17 years ago today.

In case you just got off at the Hollywood Greyhound Station in the past 10 years to start your showbiz career, April 29, 1992 was the start of the Los Angeles Riots/Uprising/Rebellion/Civil Disobedience/Urban Disturbance/Melee/Insurrection. And if you don't know what that is, Wiki it or something (You have no hope, then). You can also read the Militant's entry one year ago.

Anyway, the Militant got off the (M) bus, and saw a business-as-usual atmosphere here. There were no visible signs, no monuments, no nothing, the Militant felt there wasn't anything to write about.

Then he saw the vintage-looking Art''s Famous Chili Dog stand (pictured left) next to the Valero gas station on the southwest corner, and, history buff in him, gravitated towards it.

Inside the cramped quarters there were two young men, holding their baby daughters, alternating talk between thugs trying to mess with them, politics, and their women.

They called the sole hot dog stand proprietor "Art", even though the supposed namesake establishment predates him. According to the proprietor, who must be no older than his early 40s, the family-run stand has been in operation for 70 years, and has even been frequented by Hollywood celebs from Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe to Sherman Hemsley and Sammy Davis Jr.

"We have hundreds of celebrity photos, but we took most of em down because people kept stealing them!" Said the proprietor, whose 'real' name is "E".

The Militant, spurred by both support for the 'hood and mere hunger, bought the Art's Famous Chili Cheese Dog, a Spicy Beef dog (with sauerkraut) and a bottle of root beer, all for under $8 (pictured right). As serendipity had it, the store was nearing its 5:30 p.m. closing time and there were just two buns left.

The Militant asked E if he was here 17 years ago. E had only been working the stand since 1998, but told the Militant that community folk and news cameras were at the corner earlier today to commemorate the riots (For simplicity's sake for the rest of this article, the Militant will forgo the political correctness of the multitude of terms used to describe the event and use the word "riot," since the locals here have no qualms about using the term).

"You just missed it," he told the Militant.

But as E closed up shop, the Militant managed to talk to another local, a husky 40-something dude named Johnny.

"Every year you guys [from outside our community] come here on this day. But what about the other days?" Johnny asked. "We got some wonderful people here, as well as all the bad shit."

The Militant explained that it was timeliness and symbolism that brought him here today. He also asked Johnny how he viewed things now that America is living in the Obama Era.

"Well a change is definitely gonna come," said Johnny, evoking Sam Cooke in the process. "But we know it's not gonna come as fast as we'd all like it to be."

Though Johnny, who lives just six blocks from the intersection, wasn't present at the intersection 17 years ago, he did tell the Militant that he personally knew the "L.A. Four," the four local men (eventually six) charged with beating white truck driver Reginald Denny at the intersection.

"We sold "L.A. Four" t-shirts for a year after the riots," said Johnny. "To pay for their legal defense."

Johnny continued by giving an epilogic update of the four: One is in jail serving a life sentence (for a different crime), one is dead, one is in drug rehab, one is still in the area, running his own [limousine] business.

The Militant asked Johnny what would he like to see most in the neighborhood, which the local simply referred to as "Florence and Normandie," rather than a formal community name.

"More black-owned businesses," Johnny said. He rattled off names of black-owned businesses up and down Florence that were either bought by non-blacks or are no longer in business, of which he primarily blamed corporate competition.

The Militant asked whether there were more supermarkets and banks built in the past decade and a half (community developments that could be found elsewhere in South Los Angeles, but not here). Johnny mentioned that there have always been supermarkets "within 10 minutes away" and didn't seem fazed that there weren't any financial institutions, since he believed not many people in the neighborhood qualified for mortgages and loans anyway.

The Militant thanked Johnny and bid him farewell before catching the Metro Local bus back to his compound. On the ride back, the Militant thought about the conversation with Johnny and realized that what was really missing from the neighborhood wasn't particular businesses, or even institutions like nonprofits or social service agencies per se, but real visionary leadership that's advocating to the local powers-that-be for the abstract change that Johnny was hoping for. Surely there should be someone here trying to make this neighborhood famous for something besides The 1992 You-Know-What.

The neighborhood lacks a real name and identity, and it seems like no one is clamoring for development or the institutions found in places like the culturally-rich Leimert Park.

So much has changed, yet so much remained the same. Johnny mentioned he attended the funeral of a local neighborhood girl who was killed. A paper flier pasted to a light pole on the intersection (pictured left) advertised a memorial car wash to pay for funeral expenses of a neighborhood girl named Hattie Brownridge. That could be her. Even worse if it was someone else entirely.

Many Angelenos, especially those who live well outside the riot zones, half-jokingly allude to the fact that, like The Big One, another riot will inevitably happen. Interestingly, 17 years ago, no one really expected one, yet it happened anyway. There was no sort of prognostication from the locals here at Florence and Normandie. There's nary a hint of neither pride nor shame when they talk about the riots. Everything is described matter-of-factly. Maybe, having initiated the one in 1992, it would be another community's turn. Maybe they're just numb to it all.

Like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, or the landing of Columbus in the New World half a millennium before, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots have no absolute judgment to it. It was neither a good nor a bad thing, but rather an event with numerous complexities and dimensions that undeniably had an effect on the future.


Pablo said...

I watched Champions League at my friends house today, He lives not more than three blocks from here. Funny because all I cared about today was MAN U winning over Arsenal. I had some great ceviche and shot the shit with good friends.

I remember when the riots happend. I was ten and my father insisted on coming over to be with my grand mama. I remember the Mobs of people on Western and Slauson. The rocks that were thrown the church that once stood near there, my dad's car getting all dented. Running in the house and hiding under the table watching the news and tripping out on the shop keepers on top of the Swap Meet with shot guns, and they paint store on fire. When night fell I heard helicopters and anrgy crowds. I saw fires on TV and it wasn't until 11:30 pm when my dad said "FUCK IT we are Leaveing!" We all got in my dads Pontiac and he floored it down Western. Buildings were on fire, a right on Florance and smash. Passed through Inglewood to the Sav-on in the Marina. Grand Mama needed something before she went to bed, we all needed something before we got to our safe home in the westside. At ten years old I had so many questions that have still to this day have gone unanswered.

Militant Angeleno you're the shit! That is why I had to reply to your post today.

Fuck ever one who comes down to the hood just when nostalgia comes calling.

Militant Angeleno ... Ur cool. Everyone else gets a BIG FUCKING YOU!!!!

Man U won today so I'm happy. My friend is an Arsenal fan so he is kinda Bummed. Heh.... just another day.

Alfredo said...

I drive through here a lot when I have to go from Hyde Park to Fremont High and vice versa. I always remember that day and how crazy it was. I was at Dodger Stadium when they broke out. I cant drive through there without scenes flashing through my consciousness.

vanessa said...

"just in case you just got off at the Hollywood Greyhound Station in the past 10 years to start your showbiz career"

long time lurker.
life long angeleno.
i love you militant.