Institutional Neglect precludes Social Dysfunction

Un viejito walking around boyle Heights with his clean up cart, one of many…

This whole gentrification issue got me thinking.  Commentor ubrayj noted his efforts to keep his Lincoln Heights neighborhood clean, and that should be commended.  That got me thinking about the million “mexicans leave diapers in the streets” comments I have heard and read from various folks (not that Ub-homeboy was saying that, but the convo got me thinking on the subject), led me to analyze the roots of so much litter and other Quality of Life (QoL) problems in our Latino urban neighborhoods and how they got to be what they are today.

I think the lack of public infrastructure such as Browne was talking about is THE big issue, even more than socially dysfunctional behaviors like litterbugs because it IS the catalyst.  Almost every social oriented planning class and/or policy maker meeting I have been in notes that social dysfunction always follows instituional.  It seems like if the people who study and analyze this problem recognize this aspect of urban QoL (quality of life) regression, that it would eventually make it out into normal convo on the issue, but it hasnt.  People still bitch about mexican and black communities “allowing gangs to exist”, yet when crime drops in those places the community is forgotten and only the police are commended.

In a simplified way, when the city stops doing its job locals get angry and eventually resentful and begin exemplifying the neglect and dysfunction manifested by the city’s (in)action. People begin to say “if the city (who should) dont give a shit, then i wont either” and act on it, because petty negativity is the easiest to act on instantly.  Then it becomes a vicious cycle that leads to trash and gangs.  To top it off this reality plays out in already oppressed and marginalized communities of color that are concentrations of poverty.

Now I dont say this in a “dont hold people accountable for their actions” manner, because it is what it is.  When folks discuss problems with urban areas or minority communities, they always personalize the issue to the point of absurdity and then place those personalized character traits on an entire demographic, it always happens.  Now the personal issue of people being lazy, unmotivated or just jerkoffs is valid and a huge part of these quality of life issues.  Because of the organic history of these communities and social trends in America, ES hoods lost the bulk of their middle class residents as well as a lot of the folks who tended to care about their community (not to say they all left) and the dysfunctional population snowballed.  I hate to say it like this, but you get a higher ratio of “bottom of the barrel” folks who dont give an F about themselves or their surroundings. It’s just the way it is, and if you think Eastlos is bad hang out in Watts or Compton, lots of “bottom of the barrel” activity.

Anyways back to my point, folks personalize this issue to an absurd level, which takes out the socio-historical element of the equation.  Almost EVERY viejito Ive discussed Eastlos history with has told me that once the hueros moved totally out in the late 60s and 70s that city services and responses either dropped dramatically or disappeared completely. If you walk around East LA or DTLA one can easily see that these areas have not been properly maintained for more than half a century, how coincidental that this matches up with the flight of one coddled demographic.  We still dont have adequate benches/trees/trashcans on Broadway, yet the sidewalk vendors are now all gone. Ever notice how clean and maintained the sidewalks on Spring in gallery row are, yet not along Broadway? I think I mentioned this before, but I did a study at Cal Poly Pomona that pinpointed gentrification in DTLA solely by staring at the floor to see where the sidewalk has been cleaned.

That is the kind of shit that breeds social resentment of public instituions (and eventually all laws and rules, as gangsters, taggers and the whole “thug life” reverse revolution has shown us) in communities of color.  When you see cops litter, harass young girls, beat up people and run lights how the hell are you going to respect the law?  When you see the city stop maintaing your street or clean your sidewalks for over half a century in one of the most pedestrian heavy neighborhoods in the city, why the hell should you do it?  The end of that last sentence is the crux of the narcissisitc conservative moevment’s “no tax” mantra, yet they somehow think that poor folks dont get to play by the same rules.  Ive hung around Broadway, Whittier Blvd, Calle Brooklyn and Primera since I was a little boy and I have NEVER seen much serious public investment (beyond limiting the actions of Latinos thru ordinances) that each of these places deserve.

And you’d think it wouldnt be that hard to clean things up. When I lived in the bay area I’d see all the community service people cleaning up trash and graffiti in activity centers such as Downtown Berkeley, I have even seen that in Santa Monica. Considering the abundance of vatos working off community service hours in Eastlos and DTLA, you’d think someone wouldve capitalized on this free labor to improve our communities of color.  But that’s not the way LA works, in LA the city waits for rich (often white) people to move into an area before they invest heavilly into community infrastructure, and twhen they do they pay some private company huge sums to hire black and brown people to do the job for low wages.

My point is that people follow institutional policies much more than they are given credit for.  When a neighborhood is neglected to shit for long periods of time you can expect some very bad things to manifest as a response.  Cops would allow whites to attack minorities with impugnity, so they formed gangs to protect themselves. Anglo society enacted strict segregation, ostracizing minorites from being able to move up the social ladder, so they made their own social ladder which was car clubs and many of the original social clubs that became gangs. When police began harassing and demeaning these clubs and demonizing them they morphed into violent gangs. The city doesnt clean up a neighborhood consistently for decades and people are going to embody that messiness that they live around, and then it becomes a race to the bottom for social productivity.

This is not some victimization tyrade, because I persoanlly hold folks accountable for their actions every day.  I paint with kids weekly and always have to remind them to stop blaiming the man for their problems after I explain the problems of their environment and how they developed. I work around watershed in NELA and one of my big tasks is to create a “watershed stewardship/dont litter” campaign that will be effective in the Latino community.  When it seems like it will be productive and worht my energy, I call people out about their littering, but more importantly I stress self respect and appreciation/action in ones community. Oftentimes I do it by example, because confronting people in minority communities does not work well.  Plus, who the fuck am I to tell them something? Beyond picking up trash on broadway with my abuelo as a kid I was a serious culprit for a lot of the quality of life issues in my barrio until I became socially conscious.  I did not have the self esteem to care about myself and embodied the “I dont give a fuck” mentality we see amongst many urban youth. I was a horrible litterbug, preferred to piss outdoors, was a prolific graffiti writer, used to rob people, sold drugs, did drugs in public, carried and used a gun, fought, cussed loudly wherever I went, and treated people around me very bad.  There are a lot of young people out there living this life, and now a few older cats who came from this lifestyle and somehow survived.

Like I said, no overvictimization or blaming the man here, but to fic these problems or even address them we have to look at them honestly.  To look at them honestly means including social factors along with personal responsibility.

Another Viejito cleanup up the barrio, much like both my abuelos used to.

17 thoughts on “Institutional Neglect precludes Social Dysfunction

  1. I agree that it’s largely an issue of infrastructure and economic standing. And I see plenty of people of all ethnicities litter; I would never attribute that to one group.

    Mr. Nonymous and I pick up trash at the beach every time we go. I’ve never had a specific mental image of who was leaving it there, though.

  2. “Ever notice how clean and maintained the sidewalks on Spring in gallery row are, yet not along Broadway?” Art

    The BID (the purple shirts that clean) is on it. It is so OBVIOUS how services are doled out unfairly.

    When I lived in BH, I lived in a gentrified building. Didn’t know that. Thought I was moving to BH, but I should have suspected certain things were up, you know me being there and getting into the building without knowing anyone.

    Anyways. This building had lots of drug use. Lots of people from the Westside and out of state, lots of artsy farts. There were parties at this building every weekend. On Saturday or Sunday there would be trash and graffiti (you know the slumming like to pretend to be taggers,) but you know what the next day, even on a Sunday the city would come in and clean. Clean the graffiti, clean the trash.

    I didn’t know the city worked on Sundays, but apparently in places that certain people live, even on the Eastside they do.

    Now I was amazed at this. Living in LA in city proper for years I have never, ever seen trash cleaned up like this, but if you have building with (middle class) white people (and me…lol…) in an ethnic neighborhood, magical things happen.


  3. I think you’ve nailed it with this one. I bike across town, and entering a wealthier neighborhood, one is immediately confronted with cleaner streets.

    L.A. was structured to be a white town a long ways back, and the remains of that quasi-apartheid has carried over into the structure of our government today.

    In the 1980’s and 1990’s we got some minority representation, but no change in the way our government in L.A. is designed – and it is designed to directly ignore the interests of most of the people in L.A.

    I read a great article several years ago that I return to when I am feeling depressed about dirty streets:

  4. What if we got together, bought or borrowed a pressure washer, and cleaned the crap out of the sidewalks we cared the most about.

    We could paint smiley faces and messages into the dirt – esp. outside of council offices.

    Ed Reyes bought a pressure washer, but said that his office is afraid to use it because the cleaning chemicals required for the washer are bad for the plants and animals.

    You don’t need a permit to pressure wash a sidewalk, do you? It would be pretty badass to just show up early one morning and clean the crap out of a sidewalk.

    If you had someone taking pictures and being clever with a name for the “Department” doing the work, it could be inspiring.

    Isn’t there an aspiring drug dealer out there with $1,800 to spare for his ‘hood to be clean?

  5. Pressure washers can also be used with less-toxic solutions like Simple Green, or with just water–the latter might not work as fast, or remove all of a particular stain, but it would still work to some extent.

    Maybe the real secret to the “broken-window” theory is as simple as scheduling more reliable trash pickup, and giving people the proper containers to put their trash in. But in a divided city, the execution of that isn’t as simple as it should be.

  6. That really puts it together — why doesn’t the Times have stuff like this?

    There should definitely be a thing to get people to do community service to empty the cans and sweep the sidewalks. Let them choose their streets. If they can’t get a job because of a felony on their record, the city or state should pay them to be the sweeper for a year or something. Let them make amends to their neighbors that way.

    There’s no shame in cleaning up.

    @browne – I’m surprised, but not that surprised. The city elite are covering up for their own.

    Also, in general – it’s hard to know whom to call to get something cleaned up if someone else is littering or dumping. There aren’t even signs up that say “no littering or dumping, call 555-1212 to get it cleaned up.” Even on cans, there could be a phone number or web address to report a full can.

    Several years back, there was a campaign to get people to dump oil properly. It seemed to work, despite having way too many resources pumped into totally pointless lightpole banners — I got the sense that many people just didn’t know that you should take it to the auto parts store. Who is going to tell you this stuff?

  7. Really great post Art!
    For me the most effective way to change things in my community has been to lead by example and hope to inspire people with my actions. The last thing I feel comfortable with doing is telling people what to do. I resent it when people do that to me.There are so many ways to better one’s community but I’ve always hated when people have resorted to moral arguments and guilt.It’s like you said, they personalize the issues way too often.

  8. A few years ago on my street, a massive trash pile started building up. It was an accumulated mass of someone’s vacated apartment and other furniture people started piling up on top. At first I thought it was kinda funny and my friend and I set it up like a living room on the pavement. But then I saw this viejita trying to walk on the sidewalk and she couldn’t because it was blocked with all the junk and she had to step out on the street (dangerous). So I decided to call city services to pick up all the trash. I called a few places, it wasn’t easy. Weeks later it was still there and getting worse. Finally I called the city council’s office and explained Mt. Trashmore was a safety hazard and that same day (a Saturday) a city truck came and carted it all away. Basically, with city services it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. Middle class folks usually have more time to call and figure out who to talk to and throw fits when services don’t get done.
    The one thing LH has going for it is freshly paved streets. I think it’s cause the yards are real close and the workers too lazy to travel far for the work. There was this list in the LA Times once (when they still had relevant local info like restaurant closures) that said LH had some of the best paved streets or something like that.

  9. Ubrayj, I had that same idea of a buying a streetsweeper for a few years after I moved back to LA from Oakland. I actually worked for a corrupt nonprofit (which partially enabled me to found my own) and had to price check gumbuster machines which seemed pretty badass. I run a nonprofit community based org that is dedicated to beautification on the eastside ( and thought of buying one as something viable until I realized for the first few years you need to focus on keeping your head above water. Kate’s advice about simple green is also true, to my astonishment. But the thought still lingers….

    Like I also said before, it is not just a one man job to clean the barrio. I have collected more donations from wealthy westside Jews who “abandoned” eastlos than any chicano family that moved to whittier or west covina (including my own) and that says a lot. The families that leave the barrio and then bitch about it being “such a dump” have to realize that the very lack of investment (including by themselves) is the rrot cause, and that we all should acceept responsibility and open our wallets accordingly. I always say if chicanos spent as much on their communities as they did on car accessories the hood would be a lot nicer.

    Browne, we should hang out there one day with a bullhorn calling out all the hipsters to integrate with the locals. Im willing to bring my grill and some carne asada, that always works.

    chimatli, i agree about calling people out. Usually the only time i open my mouth is if I am mentoring youth, my family or anyone when I am in a position of guidance. I was raised with that catholic “who the F are you to talk” dogma guilt and still abide by it out of hood pragmatism (and getting the shit stomped out of me a few times by cholos, but I guess that’s hood pragmatism).

    The other day I was waiting in the drive thru of CVS (drive thru is quickest) near my house and this guy behind me in a huge truck kept littering. I was waiting a while, and kept hearing the plop of random shit being thrown out the driver’s window and then the giant crash of two McD’s bags. he also smoked 3 cigs and revved his engine whenever he thought I was getting my kids’ meds as if that would somehow push me along.

    After i finally got my shit, i got out of my car and walked over to his trash heap. Homeboy was twice as big as me, had a huge truck on rims, large tribal tats on his arms and neck, a USMC sticker and shaved head look, and an overall shit face directed at me. But he was taken by suprise by me getting out of my car.

    I casually walked over without looking at him in the eye (which still bugs the shit outta me, but I know better and wanted to avoid confrontation), picked up his trash and put in a nearby can and left. I use that as a illustration of how I keep ship on the daily.

    We need more brown examples of dignity, in more of a “taking care of business” kind of way than the “hey look at my exceptionalism” stuff. Im lucky in the fact that i came from shit and never forget that nobody gives a fuck about me or my endevours, and that their merit lies in their merit. My behavior is rooted not in some lofty ideal of myself but my numerous fuckup male cousins, 2 young boys and hope that they dont become the heartless shitbag that I was once. I want to be the raices of well adjusted chicanos who put in work for their community when i am either dead or yelling at them in my chonies from the porch.

    On that note I forgot to say God bless neglected chicano WW2 veteranos, and that I wrote this in memoria of my tatas: Randolpho Garcia and Venancio Ocampo (buried in front of that saint of pobres at resurrection).

  10. “Im lucky in the fact that i came from shit and never forget that nobody gives a fuck about me or my endevours, and that their merit lies in their merit.”

    I came at this from a totally different direction, but I was about 19 or 20 when I too had this sort of realization. It was sort of relaxing to think about it after a while – it was like the pressure was off and all I had to do was what was the right thing.

  11. There is one viejita who happily sweeps the sidewalk on Soto at Folsom every morning between 7:45 and 8:30 a.m. She and I have pleasantly brief exchanges when we cross paths on my way to the 68 bus stop sometimes. This might not make up for all the idiots that we all have seen intentionally and irresponsibly litter our streets, but it gives the people who do pay attention – us, those talking about it – to be the examples we respect and appreciate. Plus, LA’s Clean & Green do a lot of litter sweeping during the day M-Sat. For reals.

  12. What i don’t understand (and please correct me if this seems wrong to you) is why east LA, as in unincorporated LA county, is cleaner in general that BH and LP, frogtown, El Sereno, etc. It seems like our streets are cleaner, even though we don’t have the nazi LA City parking police, LA city trash, etc.

  13. the problem ultimately with blaming the absent whites and their long gone services is that the community doesnt learn to take care of themselves and CHANGE. I have lived all over LA, SGV, and the IE. I’ve even lived in Latin America and New York–all of them were eithe poor or working class neighborhoods but I’ve never lived in any white neighborhoods except in my college dorm.

    the problem i have felt growing up with communities of color is this defeatist attitude that is pointed out in this article.

    I don’t believe gangs and taggers exist because there aren’t enough trashcans on the sidewalk. they exist because Mexican (and Latino, if you can find one) parents are not taking care of their kids. they’re too tired from working, understandably.

    this is the case with my neighborhood. i am the young well traveled educated latino who can afford the rent bymyself. i am not some white person trying to open up a gallery on the Avenues. But, i won’t listen to the shouts and cursing, the vandalism to my car, the threats against me, bottles thrown… all that tell me “this is the barrio” “this is the way it is”. I’m sorry that is bullshit. When my neighbor’s little kids throw garbage in front of my home, or when my neighbors decide junk mail belongs strewn all over my front area, or when 10-15 cholos hang in front of my home just chillin’ and eyeing my girlfriend when she comes home…well quite frankly call me culturally insensitive but all of that is attitude, all of that are customs and routines that have been left unchecked. And all of it is shit i have had to correct and teach when all i wanted to do was come home to peace after work.

    It’s sad but there are many issues that “Latinos” have to face about themselves and their present attitudes and ideas that are simply wrong. It’s time to stop being so sensitive and so quick to lable someone a “sell out”. The person who is most acerbic with his own people ultimately loves them the most, but it’s a love born from coraje.

  14. It isn’t healthy to assume that everyone living in this area needs your “correction”. All you can do is keep doing your part and setting the conditions for things to improve – other than that, let go of the angst.

  15. Delmar, you mentioned many things that i said nothing about, which leads me to beleive you are operating from personal issues and experiences rather than what I wrote.

    Noting a specific catalyst to a situation does not mean that all others are dismissed. I mentioned holding people responsible for their actions and personal accountability several times, did you not see that? In fact, i even noted how part of my work involves telling inner city minority kids to stop blaming the man for their problems. Somehow you missed those little disclaimers despite my including those points specifically to avoid the kind of judgemental stuff you just said.

    Of course you are correct to a certain degree, people do need to clean up after themselves, in fact i posted several pics of people cleaning up the barrio to illustrate that a lot of folks do. Because these areas are concentraions of poverty/etc. these problesm will be concnetrated as well. Poor communities having trash or crime issues that transcends all ethnicities, the factor that changes is how well public institutions respond to these issues, which is my point.

    You may want to stick you head int he sand about this issue because you have crappy neighbors and you think you are better than them, but for me judgement calls have nothing to do with it. It is what it is, and for you to tell me that my POV is crap because you are a better community member than your neighbors seems a little absurd. To deal with these issues one has to analyze ALL aspects that cause it, not just the ones that create a convenient bad guy and make us feel better about ourselves.

    This is not a one of the other issue, and I’d of thought college would have taught you that. People can become socially deviant because of bad/non parenting as well as civic neglect, one does not cross out the other.

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