So someone in Los Angeles is now offering "Ghetto Tours"?
Yes, really -- turns out that "Doonesbury" (circa 1972) was waaaay ahead of its time:
According to the Los Angeles Times,
A group of civic activists, united by faith and a belief that the poor economy in the interior of Los Angeles is a social injustice, is preparing to offer bus tours of some of the grittiest pockets of the city, including decayed public housing, sites of deadly shootouts and streets ravaged by racial unrest.
After a VIP preview last weekend, L.A. Gang Tours expects to open to the public in January, giving tourists a look at the cradle of the nation's gang culture -- the birthplace of many of the city's gangs, including Crips and Bloods, Florencia 13 and 18th Street.
Before going on to explain why I think this is a problem, I think that description of "L.A. Gang Tours" merits one more "Doonsebury":
Seriously now, what kind of white people will go on these ghetto tours? What or whom will they be looking for, and how close do they really want to get to that? Why do they want to get so close (but not, you know, too close)?
I can't imagine that any more than a very small percentage of people will go on these tours with anything other than a prurient, voyeuristic desire to see and photograph what amounts, for them, to animals strewn across the Serengeti.
Okay, maybe I shouldn't be so quick to doubt this effort. According to the Times, some apparent community leaders are involved, and the profits are marked for explicit community improvements:
"This is ground zero for a lot of the bad in this city. It could be ground zero for a lot of the good too," said Alfred Lomas, a former Florencia member who has become a leading gang intervention worker in South Los Angeles and is spearheading the tours. "This is true community empowerment."
The nonprofit group plans to offer two-hour tours at an initial cost of $65 per adult, with profits funneled back into the community through jobs, "franchised" tours in new areas and micro-loans to inner-city entrepreneurs. Early routes will focus largely on South L.A., with forays through Watts and Florence-Firestone. . . .
The L.A. tour comes after months of planning, and is offered in a spirit of education and public service. Lomas, who will lead tours at first, plans to talk about important chapters in the development of the city's core, such as how racist housing restrictions shaped ethnic enclaves and the formation of gangs.
Well, I suppose it could be an education, for some. But still, how could the organizers ward off gawking, pseudo-ethnographic thrill-seekers? Maybe they think including such people will be okay, since their money will go to good causes? Maybe.
Nevertheless, some aspects of this story suggest that a lot of ghetto tourists are going to have their stereotypes about inner-cities, and about their non-white residents, confirmed rather than challenged:
Other aspects may raise eyebrows. Selling shirts painted on the spot by a graffiti "tagger" is one thing. But one backer said he also hopes to stage dance-offs between locals; tourists would pick a winner and fork over a cash prize. It wasn't long ago that organizers decided against a plan to have kids shoot tourists with water pistols, followed by the sale of T-shirts that read: "I Got Shot in South-Central."
Yes, those aspects did raise my eyebrows. And my anti-racism hackles, too. Others in the areas to be toured seem to agree. Francisco Ortega, a field staffer with the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, told the Times that the tours "could come across like a zoo or something. . . . You're being carted about: 'Look at that cholo over there!' It could be perceived as demeaning for the people who are living in these conditions. I don't know how they're going to manage those perceptions."
City Councilwoman Jan Perry seems to have even stronger reservations. "It's not right to put people on display," she said.
Apparently this is an expensive operation, with several big-time investors involved. In fact, money is a suspiciously big concern here. According to the Times, one of the investors, Terry Jensen,
believes the tours could generate $1 million in profit in the first year, and that it would compete for customers with operators of celebrity-home tours in Hollywood.
"I think this will be a destination tour," Jensen said. "I think people will come to Los Angeles to take this tour."
Amidst Jensen's rosy promises that some of the profits will be used to send a local "tagger" to art school, he acknowledges the risks of hauling busloads of tourists through gang territory:
"We all know that the day somebody gets hurt, it's over," he said. "We're counting on the fact that the gangs aren't going to mess in their own beds."
Yes, we all know what bed-messers those Crips and Bloods and such can be.
"Driver, stop the bus! No wait, step on it -- my Harold just got a cap busted in his ass!"
I shouldn't joke about this effort to . . . rejuvenate areas devastated by racism? Make some money from jungle-crawling adventurers? Well, maybe it's both, but the whole effort does seem ripe for satiric derision.
As I said, a potential problem here, which seems like a big one, is that a lot of people who don't live in a neglected urban setting will probably emerge from such a tour with their misconceptions and stereotypes firmly in place, rather than displaced, or even challenged. They'll be lighter in the wallet, but they'll have had a brush with "danger," too, in a place they already associate with "the jungle," and with people who resemble in their imaginations the inhuman and frightening residents of a jungle. These are the kinds of atavistic stereotypes that long ago drove white people away from cities; they also continue to account in large part for levels of residential segregation that in many places are higher than they were during the Jim Crow era.
Another problem, from what I can tell, is that residents of the touring areas were not consulted in any significant way about being put on display like this for gawking tourists. It seems that the people approached from the area were primarily those associated with gangs, and the main motivation there was to ensure that bullets aren't flying when the buses are cruising through. (At one point in the Times story, a negotiator for the project tells a local leader with gang connections, "I'm not saying you have to stop shooting each other. . . . Just allow me a certain time in the day. . . . Just let the bus go through.")
So hey, folks, adventure tourism just got better, for those Americans who can afford it. And, it's become less time consuming! Who needs to go to Africa for a Safari, when you can get up within snapshot distance of wild things right here in the U.S. of A.?
Oops, there goes my satiric reflex again. This idea of "ghetto tours" makes it really hard to resist.
[My thanks to swpd reader JJC for a tip about this story. For another, smaller-scale ghetto tour in Chicago, see this 2007 USA Today story. Also, via Racialicious, a post at Gothamist on tourists in NYC flocking to the site of Amadou Diallo's death.]