Place  /  Journal Article

Mapping and Making Gangland: A Legacy of Redlining and Enjoining Gang Neighbourhoods in Los Angeles

How race-based legacies of disinvestment initiated by New Deal Era redlining regimes were followed by decades of over-policing at the scale of the neighborhood.

Gangland Los Angeles

Street gangs have laid claim to neighbourhood spaces throughout Los Angeles since the at least the 1940s, creating a quasi-autonomous geography of enmity and alliance that authorities and the public simplistically see as having been produced unidirectionally, from the bottom up. In scaling out and moving beyond the simplistic perspectives and racialised rhetoric of moral panics (Zatz, 1987), we recognise that sustained state intrusion and withdrawal has punctuated 20th- and 21st-century urban planning processes, cementing an alternate landscape of marginality in which gangs have flourished intergenerationally. Constituting what Soja (1998) calls crisis-generated restructuring, Los Angeles’s ethnic enclaves and communities of colour have endured decades of deindustrialisation, urban restructuring and both over-policing and under-policing (Rios, 2011), thereby constituting broad-scale social legacies and ongoing patterns of top-down violence in the form of both oppression and neglect (Bloch, 2019a2019b).

Although popular media accounts suggest that street gangs in the USA are an epiphenomenon of post-1960s economic and socio-cultural restructuring and the burgeoning drug trade of the 1970s, gang scholars have shown a longer lineage. Social formations that came to be called ‘street gangs’ originated as ‘vertically organised’ and politicised organisations and community-centred social groups owing to at least a century of ‘deep-seated racism, racial politics, real estate speculation, segregation, police brutality and white supremacist terrorism’ (Hagedorn, 2006: 194; see also Coughlin and Venkatesh, 2003Curtis, 2003Fagan, 1989Jankowski, 1991Klein, 1997; Venkatesh, 2000). Therefore, and contrary to the race-neutral urban ecological perspective put forth by the Chicago School (Hagedorn, 2006; see also Sampson, 2012), the formation of durable street gangs with neighbourhood affiliations has long been less than formal, far from corporate in structure and in direct opposition to racist social-spatial cordoning (Hagedorn, 1988Kontos et al,. 2003Thrasher, 2013Venkatesh, 1997Vigil, 2010).

Furthering the scholarly discourse on gangs through case studies in South-Central Los Angeles and LA’s San Fernando Valley – two sites we selected based on similar processes of redlining in two different racial enclaves, as well as based on our extensive knowledge of each community given years of ethnographic research on gangs in the former and one of us being raised and labelled a ‘gang member’ by police in the latter (Bloch, 2020Phillips, 1999) – we examine how the categorisation of neighbourhoods by state-sanctioned real estate assessors amplified policy-driven social inequality connected to housing policy, giving rise to the formation of disenfranchised urban spaces and racialised segregation. Because segregation and entrenched poverty are key legacies of public–private decisions informed by bank lending and real estate policy (Rothstein, 2017), the development of gang territoriality, which overwhelmingly appears in economically disenfranchised neighbourhoods, must be re-examined with structural realities such as redlining practices at the fore.