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Gentrify Los Angeles

General Dogon (Dan Bluemel/LA Activist)

I went out walking through streets paved with gold.
Lifted the stones, saw the skin and bones
of a city without a soul.
— U2, “The Wanderer”

* * *

The mornings are cold in downtown Los Angeles. Summer is not so bad; winters are worse. But the tall buildings always block the sun as long as they can. The rawness of daybreak gets embedded in the concrete, which by dawn has crept up through cardboard, blankets, into flesh and finally into bone. The chill renders muscles stiff and noses runny. It grips feet into near paralysis like a vise, making anyone feel old and wobbly as they rise from the city’s foundation. Two men, one on a bicycle, the other on a Segway, stopped and roused an elderly, homeless man from his sidewalk slumber on Broadway Boulevard. The men were young, and wore brightly colored, crisp uniforms of imaginary authority. They were private security guards for the area’s business improvement district, or BID, and it was the business community’s penchant for perfection that compelled them to enforce a municipal code that barred sleeping, sitting or lying down on a sidewalk between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. The Segway rider balanced on his two-wheeled vehicle, sipped coffee and darted around like a wound-up toy soldier. The old man next to them discharged a phlegm-gurgling cough as he slowly stood. His long hair was gray, like his soiled blankets, jeans and sweatshirt. He rubbed his face and, bleary-eyed, began to collect his few belongings. He hacked some more as he bundled his blankets. Filled with the cheery hope they were going to be cops someday, the young men paid no attention to the old man, other than to make sure he got up and expelled himself.

Elsewhere, news stands, tiny, green rectangular boxes made of plywood sheet, are unlocked by Latino vendors. Inside are newspapers, Spanish-language periodicals and skin mags. Even copies of the Kama Sutra are available. Sour-faced jewelers arranged their display cases and opened their shops. They stood outside waiting for customers, smoking cigarettes and talking to other jewelers with similar miserable expressions. Nearby, a man repeatedly rocked back and forth on a bus stop’s bench as backpack-wearing Latinos headed to their jobs at convenience stores or in LA’s underground network of sweatshops. The open-container crowd were up too, holding cans of cheap beer in black plastic bags. The decoration was more out of tradition than concealment as it was obvious to anyone in view that some serious, crack-of-dawn drinking was in progress. Some, the more liberal-minded, didn’t bother with plastic bags — fuck it, they said, just get the nasty shit down the throat and feel the heat that burns away cold, stiff muscles and overly-active minds. Flushed faces and unfocused eyes became the facade of troubled minds on the verge of blurting out mad, angry tirades of street wisdom. A man dressed in a silver winter jacket, with silver headphones like earmuffs and dark sunglasses, looking like a skier from a 1980’s version of the future, shouted out to no one and everyone: “God is anti-gay. He’s anti-sex. He won’t let you have sex with animals — Get your hands off that dog!” Street cleaners, also from the BIDs, paid him no attention as they began their morning routine of pressure washing and scrubbing the sidewalks. The solvents they used sudsed up and slid into gutters long before the sun was strong enough to evaporate any of it. The sun’s rays were just beginning to crawl into downtown by that time, first hugging the bases of buildings, then occupying intersections before finally creeping up the stone and glass edifices and igniting the day.

Good morning, Los Angeles.

Wearing a black, military shirt and beret with a gold star pinned to it, General Dogon walked into a convenience store on Broadway Boulevard and prepared his morning coffee. A steady stream of sugar that lasted for several seconds joined java and creamer before it was stirred into a vortex of wakefulness.

“Hey, General,” said a man in the refrigerated section.

“Hey, man,” Dogon replied.

“You hanging in there?” the man asked.

“Shit, I ain’t hanging in there. I’m in there.”

Gentrify Los Angeles

A morning view of downtown Los Angeles from the intersection of Fifth and Wall streets, facing west. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Dogon walked up to the cash register. He is not a threatening person, but his beret, camouflage pants, four-pocket shirt opened to partially reveal a tattoo of the African continent across his chest, along with a “Black Power” tattoo on his neck, suggested the promise of an intense experience for anyone who crossed his path. The two small Latinas from behind the counter stared with uncertainty at the tall, lean, black figure before them, unsure if a transaction would occur or something more adventurous. Money was exchanged and Dogon noticed that behind the clerks cans of pepper-spray were for sale.

“You all sell pepper-spray here?” he said, but the women remained paralyzed and silent. “You all getting on the defensive or what? You ever have to use that?”

They look toward one another for an answer neither seem to have. One shook her head almost imperceptibly.

“No? That’s good. All right, thank you. You have a good day.”

Dogon exited through the side door which opened into an outdoor seating area inside the Broadway-Spring Arcade Building. Its two twelve-story structures are united by a three-story interior mall, a tunnel that connects Broadway and Spring Street. Light filtered in through the mall’s large street entrances and through a massive skylight above that was modeled after another arcade in London. In the late 1800s, the site of the Arcade building was first home to a school, then later an alley of retail shops called Mercantile Place before it took its current form in 1924. Dogon sat down with his back against the building. His left earring, a long chain connected to a red and black feather, rested on his collar bone. Across the mall, an electronics store was preparing for business. Pedestrians cut through the mall to shorten their walks as Dogon sipped his coffee.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to probably work with LA CAN,” he said. “I probably figure I got a couple of years left. I’m getting tired of this organizing shit.”

Dogon is a community organizer. He’s been at it for years, protesting and strategizing against the LAPD, the BIDs, business interests, city council, well-puckered yuppies and whoever else tried to run roughshod over the poor.

Dogon is a community organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a nonprofit that works to preserve the rights of LA’s homeless and low-income residents. He’s been at it for years, protesting and strategizing against the LAPD, the BIDs, business interests, city council, well-puckered yuppies and whoever else tried to run roughshod over the poor. But fighting political and moneyed interests is not easy in a dysfunctional democracy. LA CAN, he said, is effective, but overwhelmed.

“We win small things, like lawsuits against business folks, small shit against the city, but we get one victory in one thing and the city launches an attack in ten different areas on other shit,” he said. “So we always on the defense on everything. Every week it’s something different. I’m telling you, man, if the cops ain’t doing something different, it’s the BIDs; if it ain’t them, it’s the business folks. It’s always fucking something; it’s always some bullshit. Somebody’s always trying to take our house, move us off the block, take away our mom-and-pop stores, always something. Never stops. It’s been going on, just a constant attack. They hit you all over.”

In an era of gentrification for downtown, it’s how LA treated its poor that was the substance of the General’s war for equity.

* * *

Private security can interact with anyone at anytime.
Because they do not represent the Government,
the Constitution does not apply to private security.
— Advanced Protective Services’ website

The path to becoming a defender of the poor had been a long and well-worn road for Dogon, whose given name is Steve Richardson, but to call him anything other than General or Dogon seems disrespectful, even blasphemous. Maybe his parents call him Steve, they have that right, but from his friends to the LAPD, everyone knows him as General Dogon. Hell, the name even appears on his business cards.

“This is where it started at,” he said.

Dogon stood on Broadway Boulevard, just north of Seventh Street, and pointed at Clifton’s Cafeteria. The four-story building was being remodeled and had been stripped of its facade, revealing its original 1930s exterior. Dogon’s parents both worked across the street at what was then Bullock’s Department Store in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Clifton’s was the location of their first lunch date.

“My father is from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “He went to the Navy, got out of the Navy and came to Cali, landed a job at Bullock’s Department Store. My mother was in Texas. Her parents had a little ranch out there. My auntie, she already came to California a year or two prior. She went back to Texas to get my mother. My auntie talked her into coming to the city and she brung her to California. She got a job at Bullock’s Department Store also, the same year, her and my father.

“My mother said she liked him the first time she saw him, but he used to always walk past my mother and do this … [Mimics father’s head movement, which is a slight jerk upward while maintaining eye contact]. She said for about five years he did just that. They worked in the same place. Every day, he’d see her and do this. … And my mother said, fuck this shit and said, ‘You taking me to lunch today.’ They went across the street to Clifton’s restaurant and they had lunch, fell in love. Nine months later I was born in General Hospital.”

That was 1962, the same year when Cesar Chavez, another defender of the poor, began organizing farm workers.

Gentrify Los Angeles

Clifton’s Cafeteria under remodel. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Two doors down from Clifton’s, a Latino man sat on his green folding chair. In front of him was a red wire stool and a gray foot stand. He wore a black baseball cap and jeans, a gray hoodie and black cowboy boots. “Boleada! Boleada! Cuatro dolares!” he shouted, filling the void of a peaceful Broadway Boulevard with his desire to shine shoes for four bucks. Without its facade, Clifton’s looked scarred and worn. Its original painted sign can be seen, faded and stained. In the Depression era and beyond, Clifford Clinton, the restaurant’s owner, cared about his poor customers and allowed them to pay what they could afford for his meals. Clinton was a friend of the working man, but he was also an enemy of the corrupt. In the 1930s, a county supervisor asked Clinton for his help in investigating the county’s sketchy hospitals. Clinton accepted the task and discovered that doctors and staff were treating themselves to the best food and allowing their patients to eat low-quality, even spoiled, food. From Clinton’s efforts a grand jury pursued the matter in 1937, which later resulted in LA’s mayor being ousted via a recall election. But for his service to his community, Clinton paid dearly. The ugly, mean-spirited side of Los Angeles wasn’t about to let a good deed go unpunished. His restaurant was attacked with stink bombs, patrons filed nuisance suits against him, health inspectors demanded costly changes to his establishment and his home was bombed. The Los Angeles Times mocked him and said the bombing was Clinton’s attempt at publicity.

When I told Dogon about the history surrounding Clifton’s and the owner’s moxie in the face of corruption, he paused for moment. I could tell he now saw a deeper connection with himself and the restaurant that went beyond the story of his parents’ first lunch date.

“I guess that’s where the spirit comes from,” he said.

Like Clifford Clinton, Dogon has a similar insistence for compassion and fairness. In fact, it was the treatment of a homeless woman by BID security guards when the spirit found purpose and brought Dogon to LA CAN. After serving 10 years in prison for armed robbery, he was released in 2004. With the help of his father he got a flat at the Huntington Apartments on nearby Main Street, but would later move up the street to the Sanborn Hotel. Dogon was in the Sanborn’s dayroom watching a football game with friends when they heard a woman scream outside. They got up and looked out the door and saw a BID security guard pinning a woman against the building and twisting her arm to the point where she was standing on her toes.

“Hey man, what the fuck you doing?” said Dogon.

“She’s got a pipe, she’s got a pipe, she’s got a pipe in her hand,” said an excited security guard on the cusp of a drug bust.

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“You going to break her fucking arm because she got a fucking pipe?” asked Dogon.

“I ain’t got no pipe!” the woman protested.

The “pipe” ended up being an eyeliner container. Its discovery was a crowning achievement for petty drug busts, misplaced authority and arrogance everywhere.

The city Dogon knew from 10 years ago when he left for prison had changed. What was once a neighborhood was now a “business improvement district." A shopping mall, basically.

The city Dogon knew from 10 years ago when he left for prison had changed. The BIDs had moved in and, with their own private armies, were occupying downtown. What was once a neighborhood was now a “business improvement district,” and their mission of colonization was to make downtown alluring to consumers, people with deep wallets and a love for antiseptic and anodyne environments. A shopping mall, basically. Lofts were built so the colonists could live in the district of their choice and feel bohemian. The installation of a Starbucks, an expensive bistro stocked with chardonnay or a yoga studio offering them serenity-chic was considered a sign from the heavens they were chosen by an upwardly-mobile god and that life was good and just. But Dogon was yet unaware of this invasion as he wondered where this “Burger King-motherfucking-security guard” came from. When he asked, the security guard told Dogon he was “district safety.” Dogon’s gears began to turn and he thought to himself: “I’m a general, so I need some soldiers, but I think I got my first project.” Two days later, a friend told him about LA CAN. He now had his war and his soldiers.

There are seven BIDs in downtown Los Angeles. Each has their own territory, much in the same way the Pentagon divides the world into military sectors. The Central City East Association has Skid Row, or what they prefer to call the “Industrial District,” and their security force wears red; the Downtown Center BID, their security wear purple; then there’s the Historic Downtown BID, they wear green, the Arts District BID dons blue; and so on. Together the security guards are referred to simply as “The BIDs” or “The Shirts” by most. Some, however, go for the more colorful and derogatory “Skittles Brigade” to describe the young cop-look-a-likes who ride around downtown on bicycles or Segways with batons and gold badges. The Shirts are helpful and courteous to tourists who may need directions or to someone who may be in distress. In this way they offer a safer environment, but there are only so many tourists in need of directions or citizens in distress. Mostly The Shirts can be seen keeping an eye on the homeless, writing reports and calling the police on them.

Gentrify Los Angeles

The Central City East Association BID security, aka The Red Shirts, write a report while two activists take down their tent after their participating in a sleep-in demonstration to raise awareness of the treatment of homeless people on Skid Row on Feb. 20, 2012 (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

The Red Shirts, the security force that oversees Skid Row, is the most notorious. They are much of the reason why LA CAN was formed back in 1999. In those days, the Red Shirts were ready for heavy business — along with batons, handcuffs and mace, they carried 9mm handguns. Through a policy suit, LA CAN was able to get the BIDs to lose the guns, start hiring someone other than white males for a change, undergo sensitivity training and end the illegal practice of “move-alongs.” That was, however, not the end of that battle, making Dogon reinforcements, a troop surge, to an already raging war. After spending five hours at LA CAN, he walked out of the nonprofit with a video camera and an order to follow The Shirts around and record their behavior interacting with the homeless. What he saw and recorded was a de facto police force, an extension of the LAPD, existing only to serve consumers and their business overlords.

Dogon’s work eventually led to the creation of the Community Watch Team, which consisted of four LA CAN members hitting the streets with video recorders and clipboards to monitor the behavior of police and The Shirts. They got educated, spending countless hours in a law library studying such things as knowing how close they can approach an officer without being arrested for interfering with an investigation; they did role-plays to practice interacting with security and police; they learned the various codes that target the homeless inside and out; and they recruited people who could keep their cool and their wit while dealing with the cops. When they had trained enough and felt confident, they headed straight to one of the BID headquarters and announced their presence.

“We stuck a bullhorn through their window,” said Dogon, “and told them from this day on that we going to be watching them and we going to make sure that they stand accountable for anything they do in this community. And we was watching them, watching them, watching them, and we pretty much got their ass under control. They wasn’t fucking around; we had really tamed their ass. We was going to their board meetings and we was telling them we got their guards on video doing this, doing that and that it’s not acceptable and that they going to change these motherfuckers or we’ll see their ass in court. And, because we told them we had their guards on tape, after that, we noticed their guards had special orders that when the Community Watch Team put up they’d leave. They’d just get on their bike and leave, just roll away. They’d leave a homeless person there and stop fucking with them.”


* * *

As we stood in front of Clifton’s and people walked by us, they bottlenecked at the corner and waited for the signal to cross. Some were dressed in shabby, ill-fitted clothes, smoking cigarettes and anxiously waiting as though late for an appointment, but making no effort to keep it. The heels of well-dressed white women, supporting taut and smooth calves, stabbed concrete like diamond-tipped pick axes hitting granite. Two 20-somethings, a man with a beard, wearing a backward baseball cap and a woman with dyed hair, bare midriff and neon-green suspenders, both feeling cool, feeling like they own the place and collecting on that trust fund, moved quickly through the crowd, looking out of place with so much freshness and hope. Cars filled the streets. Police cruisers moved effortlessly through traffic like black-and-white sharks looking for prey; and busses, giant orange and red whales, lumbered along, heaving and gasping up a miasma of dust and grit as they moved toward their next stop. Watching Dogon take in the scene, it became apparent how special downtown was to him. This was his home, a neighborhood of old buildings and new faces. He was at ease in his city; nothing threatened him here. He had survived too much to feel any other way. As he turned to me, his old pair of Stacey Adams shoes, which resembled a pair of spats, scraped against the decorative concrete in front of Clifton’s, a multi-colored sun-burst design of terrazzo. Our conversation continued and he told me about growing up in LA.

Dogon’s mother had five other children and was receiving government assistance. As were the rules back then, if his father had come to live with them, her government check would have been yanked. Not wishing their meager income to be threatened, the family stayed separated. His father lived downtown, and Dogon lived with his mother and his half-brothers and -sisters. They stayed in the Pueblo Del Rio housing project some 50 blocks south at 53rd Street and Long Beach Avenue. But the four-mile separation did not keep the family apart, nor keep Dogon out of downtown.

“My mother never liked downtown,” he said. “So she moved into the projects, basically because she didn’t have no other money and she had five other kids. My auntie Susie lived there too and we had a couple of cousins that lived in there. It was like three other family members just living in Pueblo Del Rio. It was a time when all the black folks used to live there. If you didn’t have money or a good job or shit like that, you lived in the projects. And then a lot black folks that did have money, it was like only certain areas they could live in anyway, because you couldn’t live back in those days in a white community.

Gentrify Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Theater. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

“The projects were fucked up, you know what I’m saying? It was basically all poor and raggedy. When you look at Long Beach Avenue, that’s like the warehouse district part of the city. When you look where the railroad tracks are at, you see all warehouses. The railroad tracks go all the way to San Pedro, to the ocean. Why? Because that’s where the ships come in at, you understand me? The product was either put on the boats or the trains and it was funneled all from Long Beach all along Long Beach Avenue and Alameda Street. That’s why the train tracks is there, it’s to get to these warehouses. It’s like a storage facility, and it’s out of sight too. So what better place to put undesirables. This is where the projects is at.

“So my mother and me, we grew up in that warehouse district. They always had shit in the air. It was always a cloud over the mill. On the other side of that was the Firestone tire company. You could always smell rubber from miles away and shit like that. So I mean, it’s not a residential area to live in, because of all the toxins from all the factories and shit that’s from over there. I was the only kid by my father, so I was the last one. My mother wasn’t even going to have me, because she already had five kids and she’d been going through some shit with the other fathers, you know what I’m saying? And that’s why she’s out here and starting over and shit, and she’s got these five kids she’s trying to raise that she brung out here with her, and she ain’t trying to have a sixth, right? I don’t know if the condom broke or what, but I was not planned.

“My father had this old-ass fucking car and he used to get me, my sisters, my brothers about three times a week. I was sitting in the front seat of course, because I was the youngest. He would bring us to McDonald’s. He used to always bring us over there and we eat and everything, and then we would ride around. And then of course, as always, on the weekend, we would come downtown, go to the movies.”

The State Theater, perhaps, had suffered the worst fate of all. This monument to aesthetic inspiration was defiled in the 1980s when a church slithered inside and died — Jesucristo es el Señor!

Broadway Boulevard still has many of its old movie theaters, at least the corpses are still there. They are now defunct, though some want to rehabilitate them. Inside these movie houses once lied an ornate beauty from an era when such things were valued. Now they are rented out to Hollywood productions and special events or used as churches and retail outlets. They are symbols of what the street used to be: LA’s commercial and entertainment center. In the late 1800s, Broadway was residential though. On it were Victorian homes, the old City Hall building, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and the city’s first synagogue, Temple B’nai B’rith. Coming into the 20th century, between 1900 and 1930, the street was transformed. Many of its old buildings remain, leaving a distinct early-20th-century feel to the street.

As we crossed Seventh Street, Dogon told me about watching movies in the 1970s as a child in downtown. Broadway holds about a dozen or so old movie houses, and for Dogon it was the spot. For some theaters, their beautiful insides — chandeliers, lavish ornaments and decorative columns — still remain. The unlucky theaters, however, were ravaged without any merciful consideration. The Rialto Theater, for instance, was gutted and its wheezing soul was thrown into the center of Broadway for the amusement of the colonists. The theater was turned into a carbon-copied clothing store that was dislodged from the colon of corporate America and named “Urban Outfitters.” The State Theater, perhaps, had suffered the worst fate of all. This monument to aesthetic inspiration was defiled in the 1980s when a church slithered inside and died — Jesucristo es el Señor!

Gentrify Los Angeles

The State Theater. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

“The Los Angeles Theater, that is where I first saw Bruce Lee at. Right here,” said Dogon, pointing to the theater’s five-story decorative facade that was built in 1931. “They used to have the triple kung fu movies. For 99 cents you would see three movies. We used to sit in there and watch Bruce Lee. I remember seeing the ‘Chinese Connection’ and ‘The Five Fingers of Death,’ all that shit, right there. Then they always had, back in the ‘70s too, they had a lot of the blacksploitation movies. They used to show real big downtown, like ‘Shaft,’ ‘Sheba, Baby,’ ‘The Mack,’ ‘Cornbread, Earl and Me’ and ‘Super Fly.’

“The Palace was another theater that was jamming. This one and the Tower down the street on Eighth. The State Theater was in the running for the money too. They always had a lot of good movies there. I saw a lot of crazy movies, like the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ They used to show shit like that. The State really didn’t show the kung fu movies, but they showed some of the crazy shit, like ‘The Abbey,’ ‘The Exorcist.’ That was their niche — they would scare the shit out of you. That was the kind of movie theater that wanted the way-out shit.

“And another thing that has been long and running is this goddamn arcade right here. …”

We stood in front of the Sassony Arcade, a relic from when video games were not played in homes, but in loud, dimly lit places for a quarter. The outside was garish like a New York peep show. The sign was painted in yellow, sky blue, red and pink, a theme repeated inside on the walls and support columns. It was pockmarked with empty light bulb sockets and permanently advertised a snack bar, pinball and video games. A section darkened by ages-old soot had promised “Nuevos Regalos,” or “New Games.” The inside was lined with arcades that have both Asian and English lettering. Near the entrance, Zoltar, a gold-turbaned, electronic fortune teller, awaited his quarter in return for your fate. Toward the back were air hockey, billiard and pool tables crowded by a low-hanging ceiling. The games beeped and chirped while a man wearing a black hoodie played a game called “Metal Slug 4.” Further back, several teenage boys tested their digital martial arts skills in games that warned: “Life-like violence strong.” There was a mezzanine, but it was empty, forlorn and closed off. There was also a seediness to the place, like a carnival poisoned by cheap wickedness, especially in the back where hairy men with protruding bellies stood hunched around pool tables, as if nursing repugnant ideas. In its heyday, the arcade used to be much bigger, occupying several store fronts, but shrunk in the ensuing years of fading interest. Now the arcade is two store fronts, but shares half of its front with a tiny store that sells cheap jewelry and electronics.

Gentrify Los Angeles

The Sassony Arcade. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

“This arcade is old as a motherfucker,” said Dogon. “Probably one of the oldest things on the block. This arcade has been here for I don’t know how long — this motherfucker has been here for days, man. We used to always come to the arcade and play video games. I used to hang here when I was a kid — not too much, because you had to spend a lot of money. But all of this was part of the arcade. It went from all the way to the end of the garage to the theater.”

By this time in his childhood, Dogon’s parents were no longer working at Bullock’s. His mother was now a maid and his father worked at a pool hall. And Dogon was becoming a bit of a hustler at an early age. At seven, he learned how to steal newspapers from watching a man kick a newspaper vending machine in a mysterious sweet spot, causing its door to open without having to insert money. “I’m rich,” thought Dogon, and with that knowledge he began his own paper route on the way to school, selling hot newspapers for 10 cents a piece. Dogon used the money to pay for his daily need of Pineapple Crush soda and BBQ Fritos, his meal of choice for watching “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” on television. When he was around nine or 10 years old though, Dogon got into a little trouble that resulted in him spending more time downtown. He and one of his half-sisters decided to have a yard sale while mom was working. The idea was well-intentioned enough. Their plan was to sell off things in their apartment to raise money for new furniture, to help out mom a bit and make her happy. But things didn’t work out that way.

“We decided that my mother needed some new furniture, that her shit was old, outdated and played out,” said Dogon. “So we took all my mother’s shit and put it out in the front yard. I mean everything, the whole fucking house — lamps, wall pictures. This one guy came, I’ll never forget, he had, I think 13 dollars and he got the hot water heater and the garbage disposal from off the sink. So we were all happy; we had almost 100 dollars, like 70-something dollars. We were like, our mother’s going to be so happy when she gets home from work. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She came home and stuck the key through the door and she couldn’t believe it. She thought she was in the wrong fucking house. And she said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘We had a yard sale.’ And we gave her the money. And she’s like, ‘You sold everything?’ We said, ‘Yeah.’ And we were smiling. She got the money; she’s looking at it. Her smile went into a fucking frown to anger and I could see her, she was feeling woozy. She walked off. She went into the room and I could hear her on the phone talking to my father, and she was telling my father to come get me, that she was going to kill me and all this kind of shit.

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(Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

“So my sister, she had the key to the apartment, but sometimes I would have the key — it was no more of that. My sister moved in with my auntie. And, after I got out of school, I had to come downtown and meet my father. When I got out of school, it was like two o’clock or something like that and I would meet my father at Clifton’s at 2:30. He worked for a pool hall by that time, El Rey’s Pool Hall. My father is real known for being one of the kick-your-ass, baddest guys in downtown playing pool. You ask anybody who knows my father, the first thing comes out of their mouth, ‘That guys a pool shark.’ I never really got into pool, I was a really good football player. But my father was a real good pool shark. Real good, real good. And sometimes he would send somebody to come and pick me up, because he was at work or playing a game of pool or something. They would walk me back to the bar. I would be sitting around in a bar and shit like that. I would go behind the counter, pops was behind the counter working and I would always go in there and hit the soda machine. I always used to sit down there and drink soda all goddamn day and watch his buddies playing pool.

“So I had to wait downtown until my mother came home from work, because she was a maid now. She was going out to the Valley where she was cleaning rich white folks’ homes. I remember they used to give her all kinds of good shit. Shit that they would use one or two times and throw away. She would be getting off work, coming home sometime at ten o’clock at night, sometimes 11. We wouldn’t be getting home at night until 12 o’clock, but she was not going to keep me being in that house. So I used to run around all day. I’d be downtown from 2:30 to 11, sometimes 12 o’clock at night. Some nights she didn’t make it, because her employers would have parties and all that stuff. That led me to staying over with pops, and it got to the point to where I was staying one day, two days, three days.”

When Dogon talked of his past, he spoke favorably of his parents. He adored his mother, describing her beauty from old photographs; and he described his old man as a “bad-ass motherfucker,” which for a father and son is truly a term of endearment. He didn’t elaborate much, but it was obvious he loved and respected them. And he had deep feelings too for his neighborhood. From the tone in his voice it was clear he loved the past and that it had meaning for him. Much of Dogon’s spirit was in downtown Los Angeles. Though he spent a good part of his youth in South LA, downtown occupied a fond spot in his life. In this way, Dogon stood in contrast to the colonists. They had no history with downtown, but they are the ones who said with a straight face they were “building a community.” The language lived within their propaganda — brochures, websites and PR statements with cheery messages about urban development and lifestyles. It was a foreign tongue that pretended no community existed before the yuppies’ arrival, similar to history books that say few Native Americans were present when Europeans arrived on the continent. It was a historical revisionist’s spoon of sugar, which helped reality slide down the throat better. But Dogon wasn’t trying to build a community, he had one. It was evident as we walked down Broadway and turned east on Eighth Street. It was common for people to recognize Dogon on the street. They greeted him: “Hey, General,” Hey, Man,” “What’s going on?” All had friendly faces connected to bodies weaving through a sea of colonists who thought community consisted of security guards, exclusive restaurants and 24-hour gyms.

“Downtown to me, when I was a kid, it was like Las Vegas, man,” said Dogon. “It was that part of the city that never slept. I didn’t like the neighborhoods, because they was like boring. It was dead at night time. Night time, the only people that would be out was the police and gang members in South Central. It was like ‘Gangland’ out there, man. It was no life, it was no fun, you know? But downtown was always neutral territory for the gangs too. That was crazy about it too, because it was a peace treaty downtown, because all the gang members knew that this was the place where they had to come shopping for their kids clothes, they had to come shopping for themselves.

Nine times out of 10, everybody was downtown two or three times a week. Every time a movie come out, they come down here to see it. So everybody was always downtown. The gang members was like, ‘This is neutral territory, so we catch you down here, peace, you got a pass. But if we catch you back in the other side of town, it’s on.’ Downtown was respected like that for years. It’s still like that. That’s why you don’t see gang writings and shit all over the walls here. Downtown was always … it was live, man. It’s still kind of live, but it was always banging, you know?”


Dan Brumel
L.A. Activist

[Check back with LA Activist next week for part two of "The General and the War for LA's Soul."]