Which City Council District Will Get To Claim USC And Expo Park — And The Benefits They Bring?
The debate over what to do about Los Angeles City Council Districts 8 and 9 in South L.A. has become one of the most vexing issues in this once-in-a-decade process of redistricting.
At its core, redistricting is supposed to focus on taking the data from the most recent census and using it to divide the city into 15 districts of roughly equal population, while making sure “communities of interest” don’t have their vote diluted.
But in that process, another issue has emerged: where to put landmarks, such as USC and Exposition Park, with its museums and stadiums.
Residents, neighborhood councils and community organizations from districts 8 and 9 have been writing letters to the city's redistricting commission, and dialing and Zooming into meetings for months, to explain why they think these “economic assets" belong in their own district.
Estuardo Mazariegos helped write one of those letters, on behalf of the Voices Neighborhood Council. He lives about a 15-minute walk from Expo Park, and he tries to bring his baby daughter to the fountain in the middle of the Rose Garden at least once a week.
He likes it because it’s calming, he says — the water is “meditative, almost.”
This park — and USC across the street — have been in Council District 9, where Mazariegos lives, since the last round of redistricting 10 years ago. And he and his neighborhood council want it to stay here for the next decade.
“When they have concerts here, you can hear it 10 blocks down. They will park in my street,” Mazariegos explained. “So it only makes sense to have a say over how the resources that are being brought into the neighborhood are also used.”
But Mazariegos' neighborhood isn’t the only one affected by what goes on at these sites, and these landmarks haven’t always been a part of his council district.
Just around across the street is Council District 8, where Thryeris Mason has lived for the past three decades. There, she and fellow residents of the North Area Neighborhood Development Council, which she heads, also deal with noise — from student parties.
CD 8 is also where the school campus and the park had been before they were given to CD 9 in the last redistricting cycle.
Mason thinks the fair thing to do this time around is to give them back.
“The demand is to restore these properties to CD 8,” she said. “Because that’s where they were 10 years ago.”
Residents in each district believe they rightfully deserve these landmarks.
On the one hand, CD 9 defenders say it is the district with the city's lowest median income. Almost 40% of residents there live under the federal poverty line. Residents have experienced what it’s like to have the landmarks for the past 10 years, and they want to keep the momentum going.
“It's a matter of equity. It's a matter of fairness,” Council District 9 Councilmember Curren Price told LAist. “CD 9 is the poorest district in the city. And the idea of turning an asset over to another district is just something that the constituents are not prepared to accept at this time.”
On the other hand, CD 8 backers point out that it’s the only district in L.A. where a majority of the voting age population is Black, and there, almost 30% of its residents live below the poverty line, too. They used to have these assets, and just want them back.
“What we do here says a lot about how we feel, and how we regard Black people in our city, and in our region, in our state,” Council District 8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, told LAist. "I think it's a very, very important statement that everybody ought to pay very close attention to."
There have been a lot of ideas thrown out along the way: What if CD 9 got back parts of downtown Los Angeles that were taken away in the last redistricting, and CD 8 got back USC and Exposition Park, so both districts have some assets for the next 10 years?
What if CD 8 looked west for more assets? What if each district got one of the assets? Could they split the assets in half, so that each district has a part of both?
But even the South Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils couldn’t come to a consensus about what to do, according to Mason, chair of the organization.
Overlooked And Underinvested
This would be less of an issue if there were more big resources like these to go around in South L.A. as a whole. But as both Mazariegos and Mason point out: there aren’t.
“Outside of these two major assets … what South L.A. had was Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza … and some smaller opportunities along Central Avenue, along Crenshaw Boulevard,” Mason said.
“Our neighborhood, south of the 10, is definitely the most underrepresented and overlooked and underinvested community in this region,” Mazariegos said.
So those two assets on either side of Exposition Boulevard — USC and Exposition Park — play a big role in the area.
Like the fountain where Mazariegos takes his daughter, for example; that’s one of Mason’s favorite spots in the park, too. That, she says, and the California African American Museum.
There’s also the Coliseum, the Banc of California Stadium, the future Lucas Narrative Museum of Art, and all the jobs, development — and potential for gentrification and displacement — that come with that.
How Communities Benefit
To build there, the university needed approvals and support, so they promised a bunch of community benefits, including millions of dollars for affordable housing in the area, a community room where local organizations could meet, partnerships with local schools and parks, jobs for local workers, a grocery store that sells fresh produce, and more.
That’s why people have been calling these landmarks “economic assets” — because whenever there is a new project, the councilmember and community can have a say in how it affects them, and can work together to negotiate a deal.
Though, as redistricting expert and faculty director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project Matt Barreto points out, “it’s not as though there’s some sort of wall, and jobs are not going to go on the other side of that.”
Practically speaking, many benefits negotiated are available to residents of both council districts, even if the assets that inspired them are squarely in one. Anyone can frequent that Trader Joe’s, for example. Mason and Mazariegos both say they shop there sometimes. Residents of both districts were eligible, by distance to the village, to work there.
Barreto said tension over landmarks isn’t unique to these particular districts and these assets. This often comes up in redistricting elsewhere, too. A similar disagreement brewed in the San Fernando Valley, as commissioners considered how to divvy up Warner Center, Pierce College, the Van Nuys Airport, and the Sepulveda Basin.
Some of it, Barreto said, is political. If you’re on the council, it looks good to have a landmark in your district.
Other South Los Angeles Districts did not fare well in the last redistricting process either.— Marqueece Harris-Dawson (@mhdcd8) September 30, 2021
As we finalize this redistricting process, South Los Angeles must call for these assets to be returned and equitably distributed.
If District 9 is to have a shot at a more equitable and prosperous future, it cannot lose multi-billion dollar assets like USC, the largest private employer in Southern California, and Exposition Park.— Curren D. Price, Jr. (@CurrenDPriceJr) October 20, 2021
Symbolism And Morale
But there's another way to think of these landmarks.
“I think a lot of it just comes down to the symbolism and pride of saying this landmark is in my region, it's a part of our district, it's a part of our community,” Barreto said.
And that can affect morale, said CD 8 resident and Empowerment Congress Southwest Neighborhood Development Council member Élice Hennessee.
“It is taxing on the human psyche, when you're seeing improvements happening all around you, but not right where you are, right? It kind of feels like, Why not us? Why not me? Why all of these other areas?” Hennessee said.
Barreto told me there is no set formula for how to deal with landmarks such as these. Redistricting, he pointed out, is a process focused on how to divide up population and communities of interest fairly “so as to not dilute their vote,” not necessarily how to divide up assets, such as landmarks.
But where those landmarks end up is clearly important to people, especially those who feel like their communities have been overlooked because of who they are or how much money they have.
Residents in both districts say they’re not trying to pick a fight with their neighbors; they’re just trying to advocate for what they think is best for their community. They want their councilperson to get a seat at the table, so their voices can be heard when making big decisions.
While Mazariegos believes his district, CD 9, needs to keep USC and Exposition Park to help bring more resources to the under-resourced district, he really struggles with seeing folks in both districts divided over this issue.
“How do we make it so we’re not fighting for scraps?” he asked.
It’s been a tense few weeks in the sprint to finalize the city district maps, and the lines keep changing over and over again.
The process began with an entire body focused on redistricting — the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission. The 21 members — appointees of the councilmembers and city officials such as the mayor — spent months reading and hearing public comment from concerned Angelenos.
As the deadline inched closer, the commission had to decide what it was going to suggest officially to the city council. One late October night, the commission narrowly voted to give both USC and Exposition Park back to CD 8. But the very next day, they took a new vote, and — again, narrowly — opted for a compromise of sorts: returning Exposition Park back to CD 8, and letting CD 9 keep USC.
“I have a responsibility to my community to address what has happened for decades of disinvestment in Los Angeles,” redistricting commissioner and Brotherhood Crusade President and CEO Charisse Bremond said at the time, acknowledging both the economic struggles of CD 9 and the history of CD 8.
“I just hope we can do what's right by the assets and the community to ensure that both council districts have assets moving forward,” Bremond concluded.
That compromise was short-lived, though.
By the time the map made it through the council’s ad-hoc redistricting committee, both Exposition Park and USC were retained in CD 9. And unless the council members somehow agree to change it again, it looks like that’s where the assets will remain for the next decade.
“This says to me that the council district with the highest population of African Americans in the city doesn’t get anything,” Mason lamented, saying she feels "as if it is a racist decision."
She and her neighbors in CD8 aren’t giving up just yet, though.
“We’re going to continue to apply pressure ... to do the right thing by Black Angelenos in South Los Angeles,” she said.
But the clock is ticking: the city council is expected to hold one more public hearing on Nov. 23 before voting on a final map in the beginning of December.
With additional reporting by Libby Denkmann.