The complexity of the Westside

Author Josh Barajas pictured

Kevin Flores | Daily 49er

Westside

Severed from the rest of the city by the 710 Freeway and the Los Angeles River, the western front celebrates a proud past tied to industrialization gains and the Navy. This area is predominantly inhabited by working-class families with almost 50 percent of the population deriving from Hispanic or Latino descent. Mass deindustrialization spurred poverty levels in the ‘70s. Though headway has been made by the West Long Beach Association, founded in ‘97, to improve the quality of life, the Westside remains to be one of the poorest areas molded by the highest crime rates, often gang-related, recorded throughout all of Long Beach.

Borders within cities sound like something out of the Cold War, but when it comes to the western half of Long Beach that seems to be the case.

By: Josh Barajas, Sports Editor

April 20, 2016

Living in the Wrigley neighborhood in the western half of Long Beach is kind of like living on an island, or a less extreme version of East Berlin during the Berlin Blockade at the start of the Cold War.

Just as the Soviets kept East Berliners isolated from the chaos that surrounded them, Wrigley is a quiet enclave amidst the most dangerous places in the city – instead of armed forces blocking access between the areas, their street signs are enough.

Cross a bridge over the Los Angeles River and 710 Freeway and you’re in the Westside. Head south past Pacific Coast Highway and you’re in the notorious East Side Snoop Dogg raps about. You can go north a couple miles, just make sure you don’t go past the luscious golf course in Bixby Knolls over to the “wrong” side of Del Amo Boulevard and into North Long Beach.

It’s strange not being able to cross certain streets or bridges. You can see houses, cars and stores just like the ones on your side, but there are a different set of rules. What street you’re from can mean the difference between life and death.

The Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report shows that 32 of the 46 murders over the last year in West Long Beach took place north of Del Amo and south of PCH. A map of shootings and murders in 2013 by LBReport showed the same areas, plus the Westside, affected.

Until the age of 14, my parents made sure I never wandered outside of “The Wriggs.” My elementary school was within the safe confines of imaginary borders encompassing our neighborhood. My middle school experience in the luxurious Bixby Knolls was a breeze, but things changed when it came time to pick a high school.

I was willing to go anywhere, except Jordan in North Long Beach and Cabrillo in the Westside. Jordan didn’t make sense because it was too far, but Cabrillo was within walking distance.

The question was: Was I willing to trek through the war zone on the other side of the canal?

One of the few things I knew about Cabrillo at that point was that gang members shot and killed a student mere blocks away from the school in broad daylight on a Thursday in February of 2005. That’s all I knew and all I needed to know to look elsewhere.

As luck would have it, enrollment at the other high schools filled up and there was Cabrillo with open arms, waiting to take me inside its prison-like walls – no, seriously, the place looked like a correctional facility. There were towers at the corners that look ideal for a sniper, infinite chain-link fences and staff workers with dire expressions. No one seemed like they wanted to be there.

The transition from middle school in Bixby Knolls, where my main concerns included getting to the lunch line first and finding enough time for a quick pickup basketball game, to high school in the Westside, where I had to make sure I didn’t wear the wrong colors and look at someone from the Westside Longos or the Rollin’ 80s West Coast Crips the wrong way, was mindboggling. The most puzzling part about it was that these completely opposite worlds were within a two-mile radius from my calm childhood home. The markers that we set in safe, little Wrigley made sense.

But after spending a large portion of my time over four years in the Westside, I got a good look at the real world. And if I had a chance to go back and pick a different place to go to high school, I’d stick with the Westside.

During this time, I met lifelong friends and discovered great spots to shop and grab delicious Mexican, Filipino and Vietnamese food. The best burger place in Long Beach is on the corner of Santa Fe and Wardlow.

Sadly, the crime is still there; the thefts, the gang fights, the vandalism and, unfortunately, the murder.

Just last year, another Cabrillo student was killed, in broad daylight, on a Thursday, by a gangster just blocks away from the school. On March 12, 2015, Giovanny Montelongo, 15, was stabbed to death for refusing to hand over his backpack to his assailant.

West Long Beach is still a tough place if you aren’t fully aware of the complexities of its people and neighborhoods. Race, ethnicity, gangs and location all factor into staying safe. It’s too easy to catch yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.