Unexpectedly Intriguing!
February 22, 2010

Gang Signs Are you one of those people who are looking for something extra when you travel? Are you tired of all the usual exotic locations? Perhaps you're seeking to do something more adventurous for your next trip?

If so, we think we've found just the vacation package for you! A bus tour of the grittiest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Los Angeles, with a special focus on street gangs and their crime activity.

Really! We're not making this up!

A group of civic activists, united by faith and a belief that the poor economy in the interior of Los Angeles is a social injustice, is preparing to offer bus tours of some of the grittiest pockets of the city, including decayed public housing, sites of deadly shootouts and streets ravaged by racial unrest.

After a VIP preview last weekend, L.A. Gang Tours expects to open to the public in January, giving tourists a look at the cradle of the nation's gang culture -- the birthplace of many of the city's gangs, including Crips and Bloods, Florencia 13 and 18th Street.

"This is ground zero for a lot of the bad in this city. It could be ground zero for a lot of the good too," said Alfred Lomas, a former Florencia member who has become a leading gang intervention worker in South Los Angeles and is spearheading the tours. "This is true community empowerment."

How much money might be made from such tours? Financial backer Terry Jensen speculates:

Jensen, also a minister, has allowed Lomas to use his accountants and marketers. The team, he said, believes the tours could generate $1 million in profit in the first year, and that it would compete for customers with operators of celebrity-home tours in Hollywood.

"I think this will be a destination tour," Jensen said. "I think people will come to Los Angeles to take this tour."

But how will the tourist experience compare?

Jensen acknowledged that customers will have to sign a watertight legal waiver. He said that's why it's important to spread the word through affected neighborhoods that the tour is coming -- and, eventually, generating jobs, grants and loans. For example, Jensen said he'd like to see some early profits send a graffiti "tagger" to art school.

"We all know that the day somebody gets hurt, it's over," he said. "We're counting on the fact that the gangs aren't going to mess in their own beds."

Alfred Lomas notes the unique challenges that go beyond the local government's requirements that many businesses face in setting up shop:

In recent weeks, The Times was granted access to a series of "sit-downs" -- meetings -- seeking understandings between gangs that have historically warred: Florencia, 18th Street and Grape Street, the dominant gang in the Jordan Downs public housing development.

Other gangs are being added to the talks and will shape tour routes down the road. Lomas, for instance, hopes to include the South L.A. bus stop where five children and three adults were shot in gang crossfire last year, but needs the local gangs to sign off, giving him "safe passage."

One "sit-down" took place in a Jordan Downs apartment that serves as the hub of the small nonprofit empire of Fred "Scorpio" Smith. The 38-year-old Smith said he joined Grape Street when he was 11 and recently completed a 13-year prison term on drug charges. Influential in Jordan Downs, he now runs a charitable organization, including a program for kids who have dropped out or have been kicked out of local schools.

A small group, led by Lomas, went to the apartment seeking approval to run the tour through Jordan Downs. At first, Smith sounded skeptical.

"A tour?" he asked incredulously. "Of the 'hood?"

Lomas offered to hire two teens from the housing development as part-time tour employees.

"I'm not saying you have to stop shooting each other," Lomas said. "Just allow me a certain time in the day. . . . Just let the bus go through."

"Safe passage is a guarantee," Smith said.

Tell Alex Tabarrok to call his travel agent and pack his bags!

We'll close by observing that the inaugural bus tour of gangland L.A. was sold out, earning the operation special notice on the Titanic Awards, a blog dedicated to "celebrating the dubious achievements of travel."

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