Students must engage with city

If you drive north on Vermont Avenue, beginning just west of Compton, you travel through the Latino-dominated community surrounding USC, pass Koreatown and end up gawking at ritzy homes at the base of the Hollywood Hills. Too often, however, these diverse Los Angeles communities are extremely isolated from one another.

Max Rubin | Daily Trojan

Such de facto segregation deals a huge blow to the cultural life of Los Angeles. So many Angelenos, including USC students, fail to take advantage of all that this multicultural playground has to offer, but they should.

At the seventh-annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar hosted at USC on Saturday, researchers, journalists and students gathered to discuss, learn and exchange information about the history of the L.A. area.

In a Daily Trojan article on the event, students expressed feelings of general lack of awareness regarding L.A. history, as well as shock at the powerful influence of white supremacy in the city during the ’60s and ’70s — despite California’s reputation as a progressive state.

This demonstrates two important realities about the insular nature of USC as a community within Los Angeles. Foremost, many students are not knowledgeable about L.A. history, which might be a direct result of their lack of engagement with the diverse communities and cultures that are part of this history.

Number two, students seem to have forgotten how racial divides continue to influence the city. Los Angeles has a long and unpleasant history specifically with racial conflict. Twenty years ago, when the L.A. riots were happening just down the road, such violent and even deadly racial tension was impossible for the university to ignore.

It might not be as sever today, but this divide is still illustrated by the racial distribution of persons between the different neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Leimert Park, a few miles southwest of campus, is 74 percent black or African-American, while Boyle Heights — just east of Downtown — has a population that is 92 percent Latino. Caucasians make up 85 percent of the Hollywood neighborhood Beverly Crest, with Asians coming in second at just 5 percent.

These are extreme examples, but almost every neighborhood in Los Angeles has a clear majority of one ethnic group or another. In fact, the University Park neighborhood is one of the city’s most diverse.

Such insular ethnic communities can sometimes act as safe havens for immigrant groups seeking cultural security. Isolation, however, can still create a disconnect between the neighborhood and the rest of the city. Controversy has erupted, for example, over the construction of a Walmart in Chinatown. The company claims that the community wants a large grocery store in the area, but it might not have considered that the community around the neighborhood might have very different interests from those actually living in Chinatown.

The city’s communities don’t have to be so separate. Students should take advantage of the cultural diversity of Los Angeles rather than comply with the lines drawn between cultural and racial communities. There is nothing stopping students from taking a bus to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre on Crenshaw Boulevard to take an African dance class from the woman who choreographed Avatar or from visiting the many Korean barbecue restaurants just a few miles from campus. There is no reason why students should not pay a visit to Little Ethiopia, sample some Armenian fare in Glendale or get to know the vibrant Latino community that characterizes the independent restaurants and small businesses of our very own neighborhood.

The boroughs of Los Angeles have kept people of different cultural backgrounds apart from one another for decades, but they have also fostered incredible cultural resources waiting to be tapped. College is the perfect time to explore the new ideas, hobbies, foods and practices offered by multiculturalism. Take this time to knock down the barriers created by geographical segregation and experience your city.


Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” runs Wednesdays.

2 replies
  1. Danica Ruberti
    Danica Ruberti says:

    Dear Ms. Bessey,

    After reading through your article, I thought it was extremely eye opening to analyze these relationships. These particular topics are powerful because they are matters that need to be discussed and worked through. We are living in a world where our own prejudices can get in the way and sometimes an unintentional ignorance causes us to make judgements too soon. This could be why students are failing to really take advantage of the surrounding communities in Los Angeles. Students make assumptions about the surrounding areas, failing to understand the rich history and the motivations behind these communities. Instead this creates a racial divide, very similar to the one you have described in your article.

    You mentioned that these neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area have “a clear majority of one ethnic group or another” and these can sometimes “act as safe havens for immigrant groups seeking cultural security.” I think it’s important that we break down these walls and get rid of this need for cultural security because this is what is causing the isolation, the controversy, and the tension among neighboring communities, and especially between the USC students and their direct communities surrounding them.

    Mr. Nemeth raised an interesting point in his comment regarding the phrase “cultural security.” People desire to feel secure and comfortable with something that they currently know, so is this preventing immigrant groups from interacting with one another? The controversy of large developments such as the Walmart in Chinatown is becoming more prevalent as other developments such as the Master Plan are being implemented at USC. As with any gentrification project, groups around the USC area are concerned with the intentions of the project and how those in the community will be included in this project. I think USC is doing an excellent job at getting the community involved, yet I question how this plan will pan out and whether the surrounding neighbors will feel completely comfortable with this. Is this invading their cultural security?

    I can agree with you that students are failing to fully engage. Quite frequently, I’ve found myself stuck inside this “USC bubble.” Perhaps I can consider this my own “cultural security,” where I don’t adventure out past the areas that I can and fail to really take advantage of the multicultural delicacies that Los Angeles has to offer. It could be because I don’t have enough time, but it could very well be because of what you mentioned in your article. When describing the realities, you said, “many students are not knowledgeable about L.A. History, which might be a direct result of their lack of engagement with the diverse communities and cultures that are part of this history.” It is important to engage with the community to better understand a broader picture of our world. We are raised on our own beliefs and judgements, but we can’t really form beliefs until we understand the cultures and their motives. I found an article in Forbes that discussed cultural differences and their affects on our understanding. In addition to engaging with the community, I think it is also very important to make a point to openly discuss cultural differences so that a positive benefit can be reached. So, by engaging with out community and discussing the differences that are prevalent, people of different race, ethnicity, and communities can better communicate and understand one another.

  2. Erik Nemeth
    Erik Nemeth says:

    I am always interested in uses of the phrase “cultural security.” In this case, “seeking cultural security” may contribute to isolation of immigrant groups and thereby increase the risk of controversy over new developments, such as the Walmart in Chinatown. The article also points out the advantages of exploring and appreciating the diverse communities of Los Angeles. A familiarity with, and understanding of, the cultures of neighboring communities may lower the risk of controversy and thereby create a different type of “cultural security.”

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