Straight Outta The Tour Bus


"Save a life, create jobs and rebuild communities."

Sound good? That’s the pitch of one of Los Angeles’s newest tourist attractions: LA Gang Tours — and it seems to be working. Before the company opened for business in mid-January, all the tickets, at $65 each, had sold out in advance.

Eager tourists clamoured to get "a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles". Not even the legal waivers participants were required to sign, exempting the company from liability for "death, injury, and property damage", deterred sightseers wanting a glimpse of "sites like the LA County Jail, Skid Row, home to 90,000 homeless people, and the birthplace of the Black Panther Party".

The LA on show isn’t the la la land the world’s movie stars, media magnates and Fortune 500 executives call home. Indeed, the tour reminds visitors to the city that beyond the Platinum Triangle, LA is a global epicentre of violence and squalor, notorious for its urban decay, social divisions and economic inequality. And it also makes clear that amid the violence and squalor, diversity, ingenuity and camaraderie thrive.

Alfred Lomas, former Florencia gangster and LA Gang Tours’ founder, said in a recent interview with the LA Times: "[South Central] is ground zero for a lot of the bad in this city. It could be ground zero for a lot of the good too."

Unsurprisingly, the initiative has its critics. The real danger of the tours, according to Francisco Ortega, a Los Angeles Human Relations Commission spokesperson, is that they turn into something like a zoo visit. As he explains: "You’re being carted about: ‘Look at the cholo over there!’ It could be perceived as demeaning for the people who are living in these conditions."

Likewise, LA Times contributor Erin Aubry Kaplan wonders whether LA Gang Tours isn’t "just ghettotainment" — the "real" LA, she believes, is something which no tour can access. According to her, Lomas and LA Gang Tours showcase "the grim picture itself as the main attraction".

And LA Councilwoman Jan Perry agrees. "It’s not right to put people on display," she says.

It may be one thing to offer investors tours of South Central, which the city council will readily do to attract redevelopers keen to cash-in on the local real estate but it’s quite another, it seems, to give tourists with no vested interests a glimpse of the daily lives and livelihoods of the people who may ultimately suffer most from redevelopment.

For Lomas, the goal of the tour is to funnel profits back to the local community. Jobs for residents, funds for economic developments, business training schemes, micro-financing plans and improved education are some of the initiatives which LA Gang Tours hopes to support in the coming years. This, Lomas believes, "is true community empowerment". And as for the people who’ve "stereotyped us", Lomas is optimistic that they will uncover the human faces of LA’s abject poverty and senseless violence.

Poverty tourism is an ungainly term and the synonym "poorism" is equally problematic. Whatever you call it though, supervised trips to slums, ghettoes and favelas are on the rise: poorism is a lucrative industry.

In a 2009 GeoJournal study by Manfred Rolfes, for example, it was estimated that some 40,000 tourists now visit Rio’s favelas each year and that almost 300,000 traipse through the townships of South Africa’s Cape Town. Interest in India’s slums has also spiked following the success of the 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire. And who knows, this may soon be the case for Haiti, even if at present the situation remains desperate.

It’s clear that poorism, which constitutes only a subcategory of the broader phenomenon known as dark tourism, not only highlights but depends upon globalisation’s shadow. It thrives on disjuncture, on the line that partitions the glamour and wealth of Beverly Hills from the violence and squalor of South Central. Want to see where the trickle-down effect of neo-liberal globalisation runs dry? Come this way, but please mind your step.

In a 2007 article on poorism in Mumbai for the Smithsonian Magazine, John Lancaster notes how such tour operators are frequently branded as sleazy voyeurs, quick to cash-in on the misery of the poor. An Indian tourism official he cites even labels these tour operators as "parasites [who]need to be investigated and put behind bars". Poorism is perceived by many as being no different to "treating humans like animals".

But Lancaster argues that it’s just not that simple. In Mumbai, investors and real estate developers yearn to exploit the commercial potential of slum areas. Dharavi, the city’s largest slum, offers an attractive space in a city already beyond bursting point, for new offices, luxury apartments and retail complexes. There is tremendous interest in the capital that can be generated from redevelopment. What’s missing is sufficient interest in what might happen to the residents of the slums and to the thousands of businesses thriving in Dharavi.

Good poorism, Lancaster suggests, may help generate that interest. He reports how his perception of slum existence was transformed in a three-hour tour. He saw firsthand the factories — some 10,000 — which operated there, providing employment and social interaction for many of Dharavi’s one million residents. "[P]lastics, pottery, bluejeans, leather goods" are all produced there and together generate somewhere in the vicinity of $665 million each year. As Lancaster concludes, "Dharavi is not just a slum, it is also a node on the global economy."

Yes, labour and sanitation standards are next to non-existent. But, as Lancaster argues, in an imperfect world Dharavi offers to its residents a community, a home and a livelihood; something that redevelopment never will.

Tours like this can offer something unexpected. As Manfred Rolfes discovered, tours of South Africa’s Cape Flats stress racial segregation and unequal development — a legacy rooted in Apartheid politics. In the favelas of Rio, it’s the existence of a comprehensive infrastructure — businesses, services, retail facilities — that stand out. That, and the nuances of the local drug trade and the associated problems of violence and crime.

There are compelling questions that persist though: does any of this "Save a life, create jobs and rebuild communities"? And can tourists who enter these communities really give anything positive back?

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.