A World Apart
By Blair Clarkson
December 1 -- On the rare occasions when 21-year-old Albert Ruiz rides his bike north of Montana Avenue, he knows to keep his eyes open. He knows that people are watching him, waiting for him to do something he shouldn’t.
It’s a feeling he gets whenever he ventures too far from his home in Santa Monica’s predominantly working class Pico neighborhood, a largely minority community whose residents over the years have come to feel more and more isolated within this affluent seaside town.
So Ruiz avoids major roads when he explores the City, opting instead to wind his way through narrow alleys and side streets, away from the suspicious stares of shop owners, residents and police officers, who take one look at him, with his baggy clothes and tattooed arms, and assume the worst.
“It’s fun to go up there and see those big homes,” he said, “but you can only go for so long before someone thinks you’re going to break into their house.”
Because of this reaction, Ruiz and many other Latino and black youth choose to stay near their Pico homes where they feel they’re accepted, where they feel they belong, where they feel they’re wanted.
It’s a harsh reality forced upon them by decades of housing segregation and property covenants, which sandwiched much of Santa Monica’s minority population into the crowded blocks now surrounding the I-10 Freeway, creating a separate city within the City.
Yet for many today, the experience of growing up in the Pico neighborhood is not so much a tale of two cities; it’s a tale of two worlds.
“The freeway is like the train tracks in other areas,” said Ruiz, sitting alongside several young Pico residents in the cramped but well-used music studio in the back room of the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC). “We don’t go past there. It’s foreign to us.”
Around the room heads nod in agreement.
“It’s different over there on Montana and Wilshire,” said 16-year-old SAMOHI student Joanna Meza. “You can tell. There’s more white people over there, and there’s more Mexicans and blacks over here.”
Indeed, in 2000, census data showed 55 percent of the City’s 3,081 African American residents and 38 percent of its 11,304 Latino residents lived in the 90404 zip code (which generally comprises the Pico neighborhood) -- by far the highest concentrations for each group citywide.
In contrast, only 2 percent of blacks and 4 percent of Latinos lived north of Montana Avenue in the 90402 zip code.
Whites, on the other hand, dominated the area north of Montana, accounting for 87 percent of residents in the City’s most affluent and least diverse neighborhood.
Of the roughly 35,000 people who lived north of Wilshire Boulevard in 2000, a mere 385 (1 percent) were black and 1,759 (5 percent) Latino, according to census figures.
“For all the diversity that Santa Monica loves to tout, it isn’t real diversity without the Pico neighborhood,” said former Pico Neighborhood Association board member Peter Tigler.
Oscar de la Torre, who runs the center for at-risk youths where Ruiz, Meza and other Pico kids spend much of their time, believes longstanding community borders -- established during a time when deed restrictions kept much of Southern California segregated -- discourage many kids from leaving the neighborhood.
“They isolate themselves from the rest of the world,” said de la Torre, who also grew up in Pico. “They still feel like going north of Montana is not their neighborhood. The police will tell you you’re out of your boundaries.”
By and large, those boundaries enclose the beleaguered strip of land between Pico Boulevard to the south and Santa Monica Boulevard to the north, running east to Centinela and west to Lincoln; although most minorities are even further huddled into the crowded blocks between Pico and the freeway.
Once a prosperous and culturally rich locale, replete with locally owned businesses, social clubs and two private newspapers, the neighborhood was sliced in two in the early 1960’s with the construction of the I-10 Freeway.
The new thoroughfare, which promised rapid beach access for inland cities, fractured the local neighborhood, displaced many long-time residents and left a gaping void in the community.
Residents point to this divisive event and the restrictions placed on minority housing as sources of the neighborhood’s current struggles with poverty and crime.
“We know that it’s not by coincidence that poor people are relegated to the Pico neighborhood,” de la Torre said. “We know that it was by design. Segregation is a root cause of the dilemma we face today.”
In the forty years since the freeway was built, as the City blossomed into one of the most affluent and progressive towns in the LA area, the Pico neighborhood lagged woefully behind.
Today, the area around the I-10 corridor remains saddled with the lowest incomes and highest poverty rates in the City.
According to a recent RAND study, the median household income for the City as a whole in 1999 was $50,714. In the 90404 (Pico) zip code, the median income that year was only $39,821. North of Montana the median income for the 90402 zip code was $118,553, nearly triple that of the Pico area.
In 2000, 14.6 percent of Pico neighborhood families lived below the poverty threshold, compared to 10.3 percent citywide, and a mere 3.6 percent north of Montana, according to census data.
Additionally, the California Department of Health reported that in 2002, 42 percent of City residents eligible for state-funded health care resided in the Pico neighborhood.
For Alejandro Aldana, an 18-year-old SAMOHI student who volunteers at the Pico Youth and Family Center, these numbers come as no surprise.
“One thing people have to understand is that Santa Monica is an affluent community overall,” he said. “If we go north of Montana we see million dollar homes. If you come to the Pico neighborhood, you find families that sometimes don’t have enough food to eat. It’s a big discrepancy.
“Part of the reason why Pico may be ignored is because of that affluence,” he added. “Pico is just a small strip grounded in all this affluence.”
A discouraged and despondent Meza agreed.
“Pico is not as wealthy as other places,” she said, “and you can’t do things if you don’t have money. People around here don’t have that money. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
Despite similarly bleak attitudes from many Pico youth, neighborhood activists aren’t ready to give up on their community. But for Pico to lift the blanket of poverty, they say, the City must address the dearth of jobs available to residents -- especially the next generation of renters and homeowners who will come to learn the policies of the past the hard way.
“There’s a lot of things that contribute to young people feeling hopeless,” said PNA board member Maria Loya, who made an unsuccessful bid last month to become the first Pico resident elected to the City Council. “They go through a system where they come out not having many opportunities. That’s where the issue of jobs becomes key.”
In the years since the freeway ripped through the community, many locally owned and staffed businesses have folded, while once-plentiful manufacturing jobs have continued to dry up.
As the City evolved into a more tourism-based economy, relying heavily on sales and bed taxes, opportunities for many Latino and black working-class Pico residents were limited to low-paying service support positions, which left even fewer options for housing available to them.
The issues of poverty and affordable housing that were raised 20 years ago are still relevant to this day, said Loya. “If the same incidents occurred in other parts of the City that happen in the Pico neighborhood, (they) would have been dealt with years ago.”
Riding his bike north to Montana Avenue, Albert Ruiz often stops to marvel at the million-dollar homes in wealthier neighborhoods where many of his neighbors have cleaning, gardening and landscaping jobs, and he wonders how life could be so different just a few blocks away.
“When you get to the other side of Montana,” he said shaking his head, “it’s like a different world.”
Next: On the Front Lines
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