Goodbye, South Los Angeles

MILLENNIAL PERSPECTIVE--Watching condos overrun my hometown, I began to ponder my own gentrifying impact as a temporary resident of South Los Angeles. Each year, tens of thousands of students flood into the poor, gang-ridden area of South LA to attend the University of Southern California (USC). 

It’s an awkward image, an eighteen year-old jumping into his Maserati while mothers and their children dig through trash bins at the campus center. 

Years from now, USC will have displaced most of the latter demographic. Returning alumni, including myself, will hardly recognize the setting of their college memories. 

Recently, USC has taken huge steps in terms of altering South LA, undertaking what is arguably the most impactful development project in the area’s history. Officially breaking ground in September 2014, the USC Village Project will replace an inexpensive, unadorned shopping center with a $650 million hub of posh stores, restaurants, and student housing. Of course, the project means something very different to the USC student body than it does to permanent residents of South LA, most unable to afford groceries at the incoming Trader Joe’s.   

Thomas Sayles, the USC administrator appointed to handle community relations regarding the Village, has fervently contended that the project will serve the community, including perks such as local hiring, street lighting improvements, and the construction of a new fire station. Throughout the approval process, USC emphasized that the project will increase low-rent housing availability for local residents by providing more on-campus student housing. 

In reality, USC’s claim that this project will increase low-rent housing vacancy in the area lacks substance. For the 2015-2016 academic year, sample costs for living in USC residence halls, including parking, were quoted at $17,007.  Living in an apartment several blocks from campus, my total rent, parking, and utility costs will come out to less than $10,000 for the same school year. Certainly the USC administration realizes that students are unlikely to choose to remain in expensive university housing beyond the typical freshman year experience, rather than save thousands of dollars. While the university boasts the support of the local residents, this is clearly more of a public relations perk than a priority. 

The first rumblings I heard about the USC Village Project came in the middle of my freshman year, once I’d spent just enough time at this university to grow fond of the old “UV.” Here, a charismatic albeit rundown food court held dining options from an impressive variety of cultures. Sandwich Island, a personal favorite, was run by a Chinese couple who’d have your sandwich made before you could say “sprouts.” Sure enough, the USC Village will replace the only dining options near campus for less than five dollars, not to mention the only space that was truly shared between USC and non-USC-affiliated community members.   

As a student at a large, inner-city public high school in a neighborhood not so unlike South LA, I was exposed to the sort of homelessness, poverty, and crime that USC fears will deter potential students from enrolling. Being exposed to such harsh realities early in my life greatly influenced my perception of the world, marking my plans for the future with a sense of social responsibility. Unfortunately, I’ve found that USC students are much more divided from their neighbors than my classmates were from the people who lived around our high school. Remarks from my peers about the “dirty hobos” lining Figueroa are frequent. USC, as an institution committed to training future world leaders, should be focused on battling such fear and ignorance by building bridges between students and South LA residents, not tearing them down. 

Certainly, the USC Village will alleviate a few of the greatest challenges to the institution in its competition for academic status. The Village will make complaints about the lack of quality shopping and dining options around campus obsolete. The new “UV” will create a buffer between USC and the sort of senseless violence that took the life of a student who was on his way home from a study session in the summer of 2014.  It will, however, only increase the divide between USC students and the low-income residents of South Los Angeles. 

Here is a lost learning opportunity for young people to truly build a community with people from different walks of life. All in all, the USC Village Project is inconsistent with the university’s mission to teach students “to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.”

 

(The author of this piece is a white undergraduate at the University of Southern California. She requested her name be withheld out of concern for retaliation.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

 -cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 99

Pub: Dec 8, 2015