Tanvi Varma
Mar 7 · 5 min read
William Allen, Florence-Firestone community member, is featured in this photo on his 5th birthday. (Photo: LA County Library)

Jonathan Pacheco Bell didn’t grow up in South Central Los Angeles, but he became passionate about the community in the late ’80s when he heard NWA’s Straight Outta Compton.

“The street reporting by Ice Cube and the crew spotlighted poverty, racism, police brutality, and disinvestment in a geography only 10 miles from my home in Montebello,” Bell said.

At a young age, Bell became aware of the inequities in the community and he vowed to help enact change. Now he refers to himself as a street-based urban planner in unincorporated South Central. He’s a local activist and community historian focusing on Florence-Firestone, a neighborhood about six miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Bell researches and documents housing and other neighborhood issues as a community historian.

Through this work, he is one of four contributors who in 2018 helped publish “A Paseo through Time in Florence-Firestone,” a book chronicling the area’s rich history.

The book, written in English and Spanish, was funded by the Office of Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas. It’s part of a Creative Placemaking Project called “The Some Place Chronicles,” which aims to tell the stories of several unincorporated communities in Los Angeles County. CalArts and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission have helped published books about Lennox, East Rancho Dominguez, Ladera Heights, View Park, and Windsor Hills.

Jeannene Przyblyski, the lead author of the book, said it costs $50,000 to fund each book in the project, which also covers community engagement efforts.

“I was particularly excited about the project because I’m originally from Los Angeles, for me it was an opportunity … to re-engage in a landscape of my childhood,” she said.

‘CLAIMING OUR IDENTITY’

To Bell, the book is important to help combat false preconceived notions that can harm the community.

“Lack of historical recognition makes it seem that this place doesn’t matter. In a time of creeping gentrification into South Central L.A., the threat of place-erasure is ever more alarming,” Bell said.

Florence-Firestone is a largely Latino community.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Florence-Firestone’s population changed a lot, due to immigration from South and Central America, according to a Los Angeles County report. In 1980, Latinos represented 61 percent of the population. By 1990, the Latino population grew to 77 percent. An by 2016, the Latinos made up 91 percent of the community. The African-American population has declined from 60 precent in the 1960s, to 9 percent by 2016, according to the report.

In recent years, there have been many changes in South Central.

Vermont Knolls will have new apartments, shops, and public transportation. The George Lucas Museum of Narrative art will be coming to Exposition Park. And in Florence-Firestone, residents fear they could lose their public library due to a proposed housing development.

“Our book is one of many steps we’re taking to claim our own identity and declare that this place matters,” Bell said.

HUMANIZING FLORENCE-FIRESTONE

The book features the Black Panthers’ history in Florence-Firestone and stories of immigrants who have overcome struggles to make the community a better place.

It tells the story of how the community gave birth to one of the creators of the Black Panthers, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. Carter was raised on East 82nd street in Florence-Firestone, according to the book. The book notes how he was a member of the Slauson street gang, and how he served time at Soledad state prison for armed robbery. In prison he began to study Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam. When he was released he joined the Black Panthers in 1967 and founded the Southern California chapter a year later, according to the book. He was part of the effort to institute free lunches for poor students that needed to go to school.

Lily Gonzalez, a Florence-Firestone resident, is also highlighted in the book.

She’s the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and single-parent who worked at a factory to make ends meet. Gonzalez overcame the struggles of teen pregnancy, prison, and losing her father. She turned her life around by working for Homeboy Industries and towards a degree in Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge.

Lily Gonzalez was featured in the FutureIDs art exhibit at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. Art work was created by and with individuals who have conviction histories. (Photo: Courtesy)

Yanel Saenz, president of Florence-Firestone Community Leaders, said the book humanizes the people of Florence-Firestone. The leadership group she leads is entirely made up of volunteers who are trying to improve their community.

The book makes residents feel as if their community has value, she said.

“It helps bringing context, or background for people because in general the community is pretty big and when there aren’t stories told, you feel disconnected from your community,” Saenz said.

“There’s a lot of talk of leaving the neighborhood because it’s the hood. These stories make it a community, and not just yours before you move on and feel something else.”

BOOK FOSTERS COMMUNITY

Florence-Firestone Community Leaders former president William Allen said the book gave residents a chance to tell the stories of the systemic obstacles they have faced.

“If you’re black or brown and you’re poor in America, it’s hard. And things have been done to us to keep us in that situation … People turn their backs and go somewhere else,” said Allen.

Scholar Mike Sonksen, in a KCET report, detailed how Florence-Firestone financially declined during the ’60s and ’70s, when factories were shutting down. Disinvestment followed after the 1965 Watts Uprising, according to Sonksen’s report. Sonksen notes that crime has been on the decline.

“The neighborhood has been making a quiet resurgence in recent years,” Sonksen wrote.

Florence-Firestone resident Art Jones said the book has connected people throughout the community, and has made them feel strength in their struggles.

Jones said the book helps residents feel like they’re not alone.

“That somebody is caring. That there is somebody there, they may not live next door to me, but they want the same thing as I want for myself,” Jones said.

To Bell, the depth of history and struggle is key to the beauty of Florence-Firestone.

“These streets pulsate with verve and culture. You see it in the brightly colored homes lining our streets, tantalizing aromas of multicultural cuisine in the air, the variety of languages and dialects spoken in public. Against all odds, and despite decades worth of structural obstacles, the community of Florence-Firestone thrives,” he said.

Bell distributing books to community members at a tire shop-turned-community center in Florence-Firestone.

Readers can view the book here: https://eastofborneo.org/archives/a-paseo-through-time-in-florence-firestone/.

Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles.

Tanvi Varma

Written by

Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles.

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