Last Tuesday they were celebrating Inglewood's finest hour in more than a decade: the "grand opening" of a revitalized Market Street, the main downtown thoroughfare. The band was playing, the balloons were swaying and the flowering jacaranda trees were framing a picture of a city on the verge of a renewed civic identity.
Inglewood, City of Champions, put out the welcome mat to show off its $3.6-million renovation effort and illustrate its urban vitality. Mayor Roosevelt Dorn said there's "something good in Inglewood." Now if they could only let the "perception managers" know about it.
What does a city do when outside perceptions cloud its reality? Is it Inglewood or "Inglehood," Inglewood or "Ingle Watts"? As one who lives in the adjacent L.A. neighborhood of Westchester, I've been met with puzzled looks and wide-eyed stares at my residence location. My safety is the immediate concern. If my address were Bel-Air, Brentwood, Westwood or Beverly Hills-adjacent, would safety be the topic of conversation? I've tested the theory, and the other locations lead to excited conversations about where to shop, eat or do business.
In his book, "Public Opinion," journalist Walter Lippmann wrote: "We do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see." In other words, distorting reality is part of the human condition, and it is the "pictures in our heads" that determine reality.
The pictures in our heads in Los Angeles and its surrounding communities are of two cities--one of "neighbor-hoods," the other of neighborhoods. One type of neighborhood is deserving of our attention, our dollars and our investments--places overwhelmingly white and affluent. These are the neighborhoods and communities that are desirable, so much so that even if you aren't lucky enough to live there, you describe your neighborhood as XYZ-adjacent.
The other Los Angeles holds neighborhoods that are better off left alone, not to be experienced firsthand lest you become a victim to its unpredictable cast. These neighborhoods are overwhelmingly African American and Latino, generally less newsworthy and less visible in the business and economic buzz circles, but very visible in those pictures in our heads. Those pictures are often mediated, housed in the Metro sections of newspapers telling us about yet another disaster over there--another sad shooting or tragic mishap that triggers the Pavlovian head nod and the reminder to check our gas gauges if we're ever adjacent to these areas.
Where one person sees a "hood," others see a neighborhood. Where one person sees a city on the verge of revitalization and ripe for community development, others see a city on a desperate or futile path to redefine itself.
When Lippmann published "Public Opinion" in 1922, we had no mass media like today. Even then, he wrote that we live in a world that is constructed by what others tell us--through stories, pictures and newspaper accounts. No one has the ability to directly experience the dramatic accounts we're told or read about, so we must experience them second-hand, through the prism of others' interpretation.
Today's mass media, and individual journalists and reporters, are our prism for the most part. They have an enormous responsibility to tell stories that reflect the reality, and not just the pseudo-reality, of places. Without these stories, our city of Los Angeles will remain divided between neighborhoods and communities deserving of our time and money and those that are not.