Tourists get peek at LA gangland
Just miles from the scenic vistas and celebrity mansions that draw sightseers from around the globe to Los Angeles, a bus tour is rolling through the dark side of the city's gang turf.
Passengers paid £39 a head and signed waivers acknowledging they could be crime victims to put their fate in the hands of tattooed ex-gang members who say they negotiated a ceasefire among rivals in the most violent gangland in America.
If that sounds daunting, consider the challenge facing organisers of LA Gang Tours: trying to build a thriving venture that provides a glimpse into gang life while also trying to convince people that gang-plagued communities are not as hopeless as movies depict.
"There's a fascination with gangs," said founder Alfred Lomas, a former member of the Florencia 13 gang. "We can either address the issue head-on, create awareness and discuss the positive things that go on in these communities, or we can try to sweep it under the carpet."
Several observers have questioned the premise behind the tours, and some city politicians have been more blunt.
"It's a terrible idea," city councilman Dennis Zine said. "Is it worth that thrill for 65 bucks? You can go to a (gang) movie for a lot less and not put yourself at risk."
But more than 50 people brushed aside safety concerns for Saturday's maiden tour to hear how notorious gangs got started and bear witness to the struggling neighbourhoods where tens of thousands of residents have been lured into gang life.
The unmarked chartered coach wound its way through downtown. The first sight was a stretch of concrete riverbed featured in such movies as "Terminator" and "Grease", where countless splotches of grey paint conceal graffiti that is often the mark of street gangs and tagging crews.
After that, it was on to the Central Jail, home to many a thug, past Skid Row's squalor and homeless masses and into South Los Angeles, breeding ground for some of the city's deadliest gangs.
Motoring through an industrial area, the bus enters the Florence-Firestone neighbourhood, close to the birthplace of the Crips and current home to Florencia 13, a Latino gang that was accused by federal prosecutors of racist attacks against black residents.