I can tell you exactly what I was doing twenty years ago on the day the streets of my city erupted in flames. Twenty years from today, I will now also remember when I learned about Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenage boy, who was shot to death by George Zimmerman.
And I can also tell you that the linkage between these two tragedies, twenty years apart, is not solely race – it is the failure of urban planning.
The root causes of the riots in South Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods stem from poor urban planning. A survey conducted by the McKinsey Company in 1992 found an oversupply of “gun shops, liquor stores, and funeral shops.” This was then exacerbated by an unemployment rate of 21% for the communities of Florence and Graham as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Few would argue that these types of businesses lead to job creation; they instead are visual reminders of economic depression.
For Christina Sanchez, a longtime resident of South Los Angeles, she found this to be normal until she attended schools outside of her home and was then confronted with “a kaleidoscope of contradictions.” This prompted her to study urban planning at the Kennedy School. Maidel Luevano, currently with LA Commons, remembers going off to college in 1998 and wondering “why there were still visible remnants of the riots” in her community in the form of “an inordinate amount of vacant lots from the 1992 unrest.” In the case of Sanford, Florida, the failures of urban planning may not be as visually assaulting as in Los Angeles, but they are certainly present.
An editorial by Zach Youngerman of the Boston Globe points out that at the time Trayvon Martin was killed, he was walking in an area that is designed for driving. Mr. Youngerman’s editorial also highlights the fact that less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work – thus, making walking seem “suspicious.”
Even in spaces where walking is common, the presence of males of color is rashly connected to crime. Angelo Sandoval, who will be attending Princeton as a graduate student in August, recalls a tazering incident at UCLA in 2006 involving a student named Mostafa Tabatabainejad. It reminded him “even within the bubble of higher education, males of color are still the fear inducing other.”
The presence of a male of color in an unfriendly pedestrian space is only one factor in urban planning’s failure. The underlying subconscious behind the rise of gated-communities is also a culprit. According to the Census Bureau, the United States saw a 53% growth in housing units created within gated communities between the years 2001-2009. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Rich Benjamin, uses his research on predominantly White-occupied gated communities between 2007-2009 as evidence that the fear of the “other” is prevalent but unfounded, when juxtaposed with police department statistics.
Mr. Benjamin also finds that gated communities “churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.”
Therein lies the problem: when residents are isolated from one another and instead influenced by fear and despair you end up with two tragedies … twenty years apart.
Are there reasons to believe that we can prevent these tragedies in the future? Lisette Covarrubias from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in Los Angeles remains hopeful while she acknowledges the challenges that continue to exist in her community of South Los Angeles. She grew up near Florence and Normandie, the intersection in which the riots erupted, and today lives within close proximity. She remains hopeful because she sees “so much potential for community-centric, economic development.” But, she is also motivated by learning a common linkage between herself and other residents that came of age during the LA uprising. As a result, many are graduates of Masters degrees in Urban Planning.