Illustration features eyes
Art by Amanda Bagg

Crossing L.A.’s Unspoken Boundaries of Segregation

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An Inglewood local examines the complexities of working in the gig economy — and the changes in her neighborhood.

I could feel the stares, so I kept my eyes on my phone screen. I thought I was being paranoid. But every time I looked up, I met a new pair of eyes. It was early evening on New Year’s Day, and I was waiting for yet another order to be ready.

I was at Simmzy’s, a Southern California pub by the Manhattan Beach pier, tucked into a chair in the entryway next to a woman relaying her New Year’s Eve to the bartender. I didn’t mind waiting since my gig as a delivery driver for DoorDash was paying extra money for working the holiday. Plus it had been a low-stress day, the streets nearly empty as I drove crosstown delivering to fancy mansions on The Strand and dilapidated apartments on Western Avenue within the same hour. But the stares from this dining room were irritating me to my core. They were a strange combination of confusion and looking right through me. Unsettled, I moved to wait outside the front door instead

That was my first taste of downtown Manhattan Beach, but not my last. I had never been down by the pier until I started delivery driving. I went to high school in nearby El Segundo, but my friends never went into Manhattan Beach beyond El Porto, which I liked more than the El Segundo beach because there were houses behind us instead of a refinery, but less than Dockweiler because there were no fire pits.

“When I first picked up a delivery on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, and saw the courtyard with trees and grass and patio tables surrounded by restaurants, the first thought in my head was, ‘What if they gave black people this much infrastructure?’”

Now I go there often since the restaurants nearly always have orders, and the residents are good tippers. I prefer to go in the afternoon rather than nighttime because I’m less likely to wait and dodge stares. You can look straight down Manhattan Beach Boulevard to the pier and beyond to the ocean. It’s gorgeous at dusk. I enjoy the area but I only go for deliveries, never to hang out. Still, I want to tell those staring eyes: “I grew up in areas like these. I went to El Segundo High. I belong here.”

But the truth is I’m never really sure where I belong.

I was sure when I was enrolled in El Segundo High. Maybe not when I was at El Segundo Middle School, which I attended after leaving my elementary school in Inglewood. It had taken me a year and a half to find a permanent friend group. But by high school I was firmly embedded; I wasn’t popular but people knew me and thought I was nice. I would spend time after school playing ping pong in Rec. Park, studying at Fantastic Cafe or strolling through the Farmer’s Market. Maybe the stares were there then, but I hadn’t noticed.

After all, back then I was so busy fitting in that I wasn’t worried about not seeing many black people around me. The only tense moment that sticks out from my childhood in El Segundo isn’t even mine, it’s my father’s. He told me a story once, about an afternoon he and his friends were driving back home from the beach. They had spent the day at Dockweiler, and they wanted some snacks from 7-Eleven before the ride back.

The 7-Eleven is on the southwest corner of Imperial Highway and Main Street. To get there on the way back to Inglewood from Dockweilier, you make two right turns, one onto Main past the “Welcome to El Segundo” sign, and another into the parking lot. As my dad tells it, cops came up to their group in the 7-Eleven parking lot as they arrived. The sun was going down on a summer day, and when my dad got out of the car, there were three or four squad cars encircling his group of seven kids with three cars between them.

One cop asked what they were doing there. My dad, who jokes as readily as he breathes, replied: “I’m getting a Slurpee.”

“Hurry up and get it and get out of here,” the cop told him.

While the group went in and got their snacks, the cops stayed in the parking lot. My dad is not sure if they were watching them through the glass. They paid and drove off, and only then did the cops leave.

“Where do I stand in the segregated city that I want to call home?”

That was in 1979 or 1980, but today isn’t much different. I’ve never been pulled over for driving while black, and I haven’t heard a story of this happening to anyone. But as I get older, become more unapologetically black and regularly follow the news, I can’t get my dad’s story out of my head while I’m in the Beach Cities I used to roam as a child. I don’t even go into El Segundo anymore unless I’m delivery driving.

It’s the discomfort of the stares I get and stories like my dad’s that make me wonder what my parents hoped to accomplish when they sent me to El Segundo. I know in my rational mind that it was the chance for more opportunities like AP classes and choir trips out of state. It was the chance to go to a school where attending college was a given, and I might not have gotten a full ride for undergrad without it. But now I wonder if all it gave me was a sense of floating in the middle of two worlds, as I try to reconnect with both the white, rich towns where I was a teenager and the Inglewood where I was a child. And this question gets even trickier when I see what Inglewood is turning into. When I’m coming home from delivery driving, I take the overhead ramp that links the 405 and 105, and I see the Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park rise up over the land of the former race track where my cousins and I used to help my grandfather choose horses.

A slate of recent Los Angeles Times articles in recent months featured residents near the new stadium whose rents jumped from the low thousands to more than $2,500 a month. This includes small business owners, shops and restaurants that have been there since I was born. Sure, now I can go to the Chipotle and Planet Fitness around the corner from my house, but they weren’t built for me; they’re for the newcomers, and they’re the reason my mom keeps getting real estate fliers saying they can sell her house with little to no hassle.

“The only way I could stay in Inglewood now with the new rent prices is to continue living with my mom.”

When I first picked up a delivery from the Metlox shopping center on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, and saw the courtyard with trees and grass and patio tables surrounded by restaurants, the first thought in my head was, “What if they gave black people this much infrastructure?” Turns out the answer is that lifelong residents get pushed out for white residents who will pay these rents.

And where do I fall in this, as someone who grew up commuting to the type of area that she is now getting displaced out of? The only way I could stay in Inglewood now with the new rent prices is to continue living with my mom or to ask for a deal from a family friend who owns rental property. But the Beach Cities are also nearly out of my price range, and then I would have to deal with the stares. Where do I stand in the segregated city that I want to call home?

There is a place that I delivered from once, Fusion Sushi. It’s tucked into a side street off of the main Manhattan Beach drag. The first time I went it smelled sweetly of fish. That may be an oxymoron, but I love fish and the smell of salt and sea and brine intoxicated me. I thought of that smell for a good two weeks after, turning it into a craving. Finally, one night when I was meeting a friend for dinner I suggested sushi. We went and were served and had delicious, huge bento boxes. I laughed and did my good-food moan and pried a bit of joy out of my anxiety over where I was.

As for the question of where I belong, it’s not going to be answered easily. At least not while I’m 24 and delivery driving between jobs and worried about so many things out of my control: big business more important than people’s needs in our capitalist society, gentrification and those getting pushed out of their neighborhoods having nowhere to go — and where I belong in all of this.

So instead I need to adopt the spirit of those black kids who ventured into Hermosa and Torrance and El Segundo even though they were explicitly unwelcome, like my dad. I can bring some backup into the places where I feel explicitly uncomfortable, like Fusion Sushi. But I need to keep going to the places I consider mine: Barnes and Noble on Rosecrans Avenue, AMC Del Amo, Hot and Cool Cafe on Degman Avenue, Brolly Hut and King Fish Market on Crenshaw Boulevard. I can keep showing up, and look people in the eye. I won’t be moved.

Los Angeleno