Our ongoing project on the Los Angeles Dream Center has introduced us to many memorable people, among them, Alfred Lomas. Alfred is the director of the Food Truck ministry at the Dream Center, where he has used that ministry to gain entree and trust among gang members in some of the worst housing projects in America, by providing weekly food deliveries to the residents. While his work may be running the Food Truck ministry, his passion is to bring peace to the streets of south Los Angeles. (Alfred is fond of saying that he has a “Ph.D. from USC—the University of South Central.”) He intends to do this by creating economic opportunities, and thus providing young people with the means, motivation, and opportunity to get out, and/or stay out of gang life. This is no easy task, and there are no easy answers, but Alfred may be uniquely positioned between the gangs, politicians, and law enforcement to be able to pull this off.
Alfred has been in the news a lot since November 2009, when he launched L.A. Gang Tours, a company that seeks to provide jobs and economic development in the south Los Angeles communities that are at the epicenter of gang activity. His efforts with L.A. Gang Tours have not exactly garnered the unqualified support of politicians, pundits, or academics that one might think he was hoping for. Then again, Alfred is a very smart man, and his choice of both the name of the effort, and the use of a tour, was certainly intended to get everybody’s attention. By any measure, he was successful at that—a quick Google search (to the extent that a Google search is a measure of anything) on “la gang tours” nets over 500,000 hits—some of the attention positive, some holding judgment, and much of it negative.
Because of its relationship to our Dream Center Project, I decided that it was important for us to see firsthand what the tour was like, the kind of people who went on the tour, and to see Alfred in action as he worked as the “tour guide.” So on Saturday (3/27/10), Brad Nabors and I signed the release form acknowledging that we were aware of the potential for bodily harm, and stepped onto the bus for a tour of some of the most notorious sites of gang violence, law enforcement corruption, jails, and, believe it or not, some very impressive entrepreneurial activity.
Most of the criticism of the tour has really been over the image that the name invokes, namely, that this would be some sort of slum tourism, or National Geographic safari event that would turn the residents of these neighborhoods into objects either of fascination or derision for the tourists. And, I have to say that if I hadn’t had Alfred in my ear telling me about the project for the past year, my reaction would most likely have been similar. The fact of the matter is that the tour—that is, the part where you’re actually on the bus and driving around Los Angeles—is kind of beside the point. The real point is the impressive amount of information that Alfred has put together and disseminates during the tour, using the “stops” to contextualize his message, and the former rival gang members now working as gang interventionists, who are on the bus and an integral part of the tour.
Many of the tour’s critics have lobbed their metaphorical scuds from the safety of their living rooms. It would seem to make more sense for people to actually experience the tour for themselves. There is no substitute for empirical observation, and currently, there is little to none. Alfred’s efforts are laudable, and to this point he has created a few jobs for gang interventionists. However, the long term effects of L.A. Gang Tours remain to be seen, as I’m sure Alfred would agree. Sociologically there are many interesting questions to be answered, not the least of which are how, and whether, Alfred is able to put together a sustainable coalition of partners that will increase the likelihood of success, or, whether social and political forces with other interests will scuttle the effort before it can reach its potential. We’ll be keeping track over the months ahead, and report back as we gather additional information about L.A. Gang Tours.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.