Below the Ten: Life in South LA

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Down at 97th and Main street, not far from Watts, is a blues club called The Barnyard. Walk in on a Saturday night, and you’ll see piles of old pipes, stacks of salvaged lumber and a rusted metal drum where there’s usually a roaring barrel fire with a circle of older black men and women drinking beers.

Walk a little farther, under the rickety roof, and there’s a pool table that looks like it’s been sitting out in the sun and rain for a few years. The faded green felt is torn and curls up. The slate peeks out. There’s a dance floor filled with well-dressed black men in colorful suits and polished shoes, and women in beautiful hats and stylish dresses, dancing to blues and R&B bands playing on a homemade stage.

The Barnyard (Photo: Larry Hirschowitz)

The next morning, head over to Compton, not far away. There you will find a farmhouse with goats bleating in the back. Every week, local transplants from Mexico and Central America set up chairs to spend hours sharing each other’s company, drinking goat’s milk so fresh it’s frothy and warm (and might still have hair in it). Kids drink the milk with sugar or powdered chocolate, grown-ups drink it with booze.

The goats are allowed to be there, but the milk isn’t legal — it’s not pasteurized and there’s definitely no liquor license involved; many in the community are undocumented. Why run the risk? One patron says it reminds her of her little pueblo in Mexico where weekends were spent in the center plaza chatting, laughing, hanging out with family, friends and neighbors. The way she tells it, it’s about community. That’s why everyone else is there too.

“Below the Ten: Stories of South LA” focuses on the neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway, including Watts, Jefferson Park, and Compton; places known for African-American disenfranchisement, gangsta rap, and riots.

Luis Jesus Gutierrez Sanchez, who calls himself “Grace of the Sea,” with his hot dog cart (Photo: David Weinberg)

Today, the vast majority of South L.A.’s population is no longer black, it’s Latino. And some of those historically neglected neighborhoods are getting more investment. As Los Angeles gets more crowded and expensive, some of the biggest residential development projects in Southern California are planned in these communities.

Many of the people in these stories are poor. Some are undocumented, some lack basic shelter, physical safety and opportunities to get ahead. For KCRW reporter David Weinberg, “it’s about elevating people who often get reduced to very simple narratives about ‘struggle’ and ‘bootstraps’. I’m interested in getting as close as possible to trying to feel what it’s actually like.”

Working in a documentary style, Weinberg spends weeks and sometimes months with people, becoming a fixture in their lives. “A lot comes out during the hanging out time that you wouldn’t know to ask in an interview. Serendipity happens more when you put in the time,” he says. “The web of personal connections becomes more apparent. It starts to feel more like a small town.”

Welcome to South L.A.

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