YOU MAY HAVE HEARD that here in Los Angeles we spend some time in our cars. But since I moved here four and a half years ago, I’ve realized that it isn’t quite accurate to call this a car culture. We are, rather, a traffic culture. Streets are our dear friends or — more often — our loathsome enemies. We assign them personalities. We assign them definite articles. We talk about them constantly. So much. All the time. This may be fodder for East Coast sketch comedy, but here streets are serious business. They map not just the shape of our city but the shape of our days. They define our mornings, our evenings, our habits before and after and in between.
They even define our understanding of our city.
No street looms larger over the constitution of LA than the 10 — I-10, to the rest of the country — the interstate that connects Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, by way of Houston and New Orleans, Phoenix and El Paso. Between downtown LA and the Pacific Coast Highway — a stretch of just 15 miles — the 10 serves roughly 300,000 vehicles daily. I avoid it if at all possible.
But the 10, perhaps more so than any other street in the city, isn’t just a way to get from one place to another (however slowly): the 10 is a dividing line that keeps us apart. In LA there’s north of the 10 and there’s south of the 10, and unless it’s a USC game day, rarely the twain shall meet.
South of the 10 includes the part of the city officially known as “South LA,” a post-riot rebranding of “South Central” and a term I’ve never heard used in conversation unless the conversation is about how no one ever uses the term in conversation. (It’s worth noting here that no one ever says “North LA” — that’s just “LA.”) South LA is no longer as uniformly African American as it once was — like most of the rest of the city, South LA is home to a growing Hispanic and Latino population — but over the years one thing hasn’t changed. The population north of the 10 still doesn’t really go south of the 10. It doesn’t even really see south of the 10.
That might be about to change. Because it is south of the 10 — called ghettoside by some residents — that Jill Leovy, an award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, chronicles in the masterful Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America an in-depth look at the ravages of homicide in the largely black neighborhoods of South LA, which Leovy calls “both a place and a predicament.”
In 2007, Leovy launched The Homicide Report, a blog that sought to document every single homicide victim in Los Angeles County, a distinctly daunting project considering that in LA County there were 941 homicides in 2007 alone. Leovy eventually chose to relinquish her stewardship of the blog, but her desire to make visible the lives and deaths of the city’s often overlooked murder victims is still a driving force behind her work. In Ghettoside, Leovy has given herself an additional and even more ambitious task: to present a broad portrait of crime, law, and order in Los Angeles and to delve into the institutional biases that have contributed to what Leovy describes as “a plague of murders among black men.”
That most of the killers of black men are black men themselves is a fact Leovy does not shy from, despite the discomfort many of us might feel with the phrase “black-on-black” crime, used as it so often is to support a particularly nasty sort of racial determinism — “A frame,” as Jamelle Bouie wrote for The American Prospect, “that presupposes black criminality.” Leovy acknowledges the ways in which the idea of “black-on-black” murder has been misappropriated and then plows promptly on, because for her purposes these are the very types of murders that most prove her point: that both black victims and black killers are created by the same institutional indifference. What matters to Leovy here isn’t the high percentage of homicides in which the killers of black victims are black (90.7 percent in 2011, according to the FBI) — since, after all, this isn’t so different from the percentage of white victims killed by whites (82.9 percent over the same period). As such, the statistics really only tell us the obvious: that homicide is a crime of proximity, that our neighborhoods are still racially segregated. No, what matters to Leovy is the disproportionate rate at which black Americans are murdered. Just 12 percent of the population is black, she reports — but nearly half of its homicide victims are.
As Leovy writes, “This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” In light of the statistics, the implication, then, is that the criminal justice system has failed black Americans more profoundly than it has any other group.
Ghettoside uses a single story as its organizational through-line: that of the 2007 murder of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, the son of a veteran LAPD officer, who was shot in the head while walking down the street in South LA. It’s a thoughtful choice, a heartbreaking case that gives Leovy a platform from which to explore a wide range of issues: The concept of the “righteous victim.” The pervasive culture of fear and intimidation that keeps witnesses off the stand. The bureaucratic incompetence and indifference that hamstrings detectives. The crippling grief that trails in death’s wake.
Before I go on, I should cop to some bias, some reluctance, and some anxiety. I knew little of Leovy’s bona fides before I opened up Ghettoside, but from an early, cursory Google search, I was aware that she is white (or at least that she appears to be). I admit that this gave me pause and put me on high alert. If I’ve learned anything over the past few months as a writer (and human), it’s that on the subject of discrimination, even those privileged opinions with the very best intentions will crowd out the voices that most need to be heard. In other words, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how white people — myself included — need to step back and shut the fuck up about their own experiences. Not the best attitude with which to approach a book by a white woman, I’ll grant.
In this case, though, my sensitivity allowed me to better appreciate how carefully Leovy has kept herself out of her own book. Ghettoside is not Leovy’s story, nor does she attempt to make it so. Tellingly, even when she makes a rare reference to herself in the final pages of the book, she still sticks — stubbornly and almost forcefully — to the third person. She is, simply, “this writer.” In our compulsively confessional world, I was almost shocked to encounter white writing on race in the absence of an I.
That Leovy is able to rely so heavily on external sources and perspectives is a testament to her journalistic experience and expertise. As I well know, oftentimes first-person meta-commentary is a cheap trick designed to gloss over inadequacies of research. Leovy, however, needs no such misdirection. She has done the work. She knows the neighborhoods and the people. She’s been to the hospitals, to the police stations, to the homes of the victims, to the scenes of the crime. In Ghettoside, you can practically smell the shoe leather. The reporting is so thorough, so detailed — the physical description at times verging on the photorealistic — that I found myself marveling, wondering, and even doubting. How the hell did she get all this?
But we don’t know how she got it because, thank god, she doesn’t tell us. Leovy bears witness without trumpeting her place on the stand. When her own voice comes through, it does so largely in the ingenuity of her language, a notable deviation from standard news-section style. Some sentences I quite coveted, as when she describes the DA in charge of the Tennelle case as having “[a] physique […] like the balsawood frame of a kite: it curved and snapped with the constant motions of his limbs.” In the context of the subject matter, however, her literary flair can come across like a magnesium flash. It doesn’t just catch your eye — occasionally it’s bright enough to blind. In my appreciation for Leovy’s prose, I sometimes risked missing her point.
Similarly, Ghettoside reads so briskly as a story that at times I worried the suspense might overwhelm the substance. The account of the Tennelle investigation is paced like a potboiler, its information parceled out with the same sense of driving narrative rhythm. Then there’s the climactic interrogation, which pits the persistent Skaggs against the recalcitrant prime suspect, which could have been lifted from an episode of Homicide. It’s nearly enough to make you forget that real lives are at stake.
So if there is a criticism to be leveled at Ghettoside from a technical perspective, it is this: at times Leovy’s storytelling might be too good for its own good. She has the sense of a journalist but the engaging, propulsive voice of a novelist, and as a result I must admit the dehumanizing probability that the book will function for some as entertainment. But I suspect this is a necessary compromise: otherwise the odds are much lower that a reader would make it through what is a distinctly harrowing reading experience.
What makes Ghettoside so special — and enduring — is not its argument but its emotional content. For all that Leovy is up front about the one, “simple” idea behind Ghettoside, she wisely takes a more oblique approach to the book’s secondary thesis: that failures of justice are enabled by failures of empathy — which, if true, has dangerous implications for a police force that is infamous for not living in LA County. But Leovy clearly believes that it doesn’t have to be this way, a conviction made most explicit when she baldly attributes the effectiveness of ghettoside detective Nathan Kouri to “his emotional response to working homicide. He was open and sensitive enough to take in the misery of the people involved in his cases. He allowed their pain and terror to rework his understanding of the work he did.”
The great achievement of Ghettoside is to put readers in a similar position. Leovy presents the men and women of Ghettoside not as objects of distant study but as subjects whose lives we are invited to inhabit. Leovy gives volume to the voices of the victims, their families, the killers, the cops, allowing their pain and terror, plainly presented, to rework our own understanding.
Though numbers are a necessary part of any sociological investigation, Leovy refuses to allow the black residents of South LA to be reduced to data points. She grabs us by the chin and makes us see: These are mothers, fathers, children. These lives matter. These deaths matter. These experiences matter. And while I’d like to think that I’m the sort of person who would intuitively know such a thing, I can’t deny that before reading Ghettoside my understanding of the matter was more theoretical than visceral. No longer — or at least less so. Because while we may not want to cross the 10 — or 125th, or 8 Mile — with Ghettoside, Jill Leovy drags us, willing or not, over to the other side.
Little is a novelist living in Los Angeles — west of the 5, north of the 101.