Tourists take walk on wild side with LA gang tour

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The Independent Online

Far away from the well-worn Hollywood bus rides where tourists gawk at the mansions of the rich and famous, Alfred Lomas is taking sightseers for a walk on the wild side.

While other visitors to Los Angeles pay to tour the celebrity neighborhoods which house Tinseltown's elite, Lomas guides his passengers on a swing through the city's gang-infested past and present.

The twice-monthly tour - billed as "The Ultimate Urban Experience" - offers an insight into a world mythologized by the movies, but rarely seen by the millions of tourists who flock to Los Angeles every year.

For 65 dollars per person, Lomas guides roughly 15 passengers around some of the most notorious landmarks of Los Angeles's gangland.

Yet Lomas and his colleagues deny that the tour is a simple attempt to exploit the city's dark side for financial gain.

As a reformed former member of the Florencia 13 gang, Lomas says the purpose of the tour is to educate rather than titillate, hoping any profits will be plowed back into the community to "help create sustainable change."

Lomas launched the tour as a result of becoming involved with the Dream Center, a church-backed charity which distributes food and clothes to Los Angeles's poorest neighborhoods.

He believes LA Gang Tours is helping to break some of the stereotypes associated with the city's mean streets.

"We feel we can bring awareness and at the same time use it as a tool that would help break many of the cliches of the violence between gangs in South LA," Lomas says.

Stops on the tour can include the Los Angeles County Jail, home to roughly 20,000 inmates and the previous temporary residence of celebrities such as O.J. Simpson to Paris Hilton, the birthplace of the feared Crips gang, and the scene of a bloody 1974 shoot-out involving the Symbionese Liberation Army, the black militant group best known for abducting heiress Patty Hearst.

- 'We've humanized who we are' -

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The visual highlight of the tour is the Los Angeles River Bed, where the world's largest and costliest graffiti "tag" was ever created.

One of the tour guides is Melvin Johnson, a former member of the Crips street gang. Johnson said the tour also drew attention to the work of former gang members who try to steer individuals away from crime.

"It is very important for me because it gives to a lot of people the opportunity to see what we are trying to do as positive, and also highlights the gang interventionist workers," Johnson said.

"Overall, it's bringing awareness to people about what gangs are. It's not just about gangs, it's about economic problems in the city."

Since its launch, the tour has attracted a mixed clientele, ranging from tourists to curious Los Angeles residents.

John and Shannon Hill, from the exclusive enclave of Bel Air, said they wanted to see another side of the city.

"It's amazing you can live in a place like LA and be so close to areas that are just so different," John Hill said. "It's interesting to get a sense of what happens so close to home."

Nicolas Bello, a tourist from Toronto, said he stumbled across the tour on the Internet.

"I was Google-ing LA tours and this came up, so I read a bit more about it... it sounded different and unique," said Bello, admitting that his knowledge of Los Angeles's tougher neighborhoods came from "TV and movies."

The presence of former gang members such as Lomas and Johnson was the tour's highlight said Bello.

"For me, the most interesting thing is the gang members personal stories," he said. "Being able to tell their experiences, how they had to struggle and how they continue to struggle."

Lomas meanwhile said the fact that the tour could even exist was testimony to the strides being made in neighborhoods once regarded as no-go zones.

"The greatest testimony to the success of what's going on is the fact that you can go through this area - which is considered one of the most violent areas in the USA - and have a bus goes through, with white tourists completely uninterrupted, and unchallenged," Lomas said.

"It's really a testimony of the work that has been done in the streets. We've humanized who we are. We've broken the stereotype."

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