For many Angelenos, the hundreds of vacant lots dotting South Central Los Angeles are a sober reminder of the economic destruction left by the 1992 L.A. riots.
But for a significant number of small- and home-based business owners in the area, the abandoned properties, and the chain-link fences which surround them, represent something else hundreds of square feet of free advertising space.
“The fences were not there until the riots,” says Sabrina Fisher-Reece, owner of Braids by Sabrina, a South Central L.A. hair-braiding business, whose distinctive hot pink banners can be seen on fences throughout the area. “Ever since then, that’s where I’ve been advertising. It’s something good that came out of the riots.”
Of the approximately 600 properties destroyed or significantly damaged in the 1992 civil disturbance, about 200 vacant lots remain, most of them on the broad thoroughfares criss-crossing South Central Los Angeles.
Scarred with weeds and strewn with broken glass, faded newspapers and fast-food wrappers, the abandoned properties are the former homes of auto parts dealers, convenience stores, restaurants and barber shops.
But if the properties they surround are vacant and bleak, the chain-link fences themselves brim with an unusual vibrancy.
Throughout inner-city neighborhoods, the ubiquitous fences are covered by a crazy-quilt of colorful signs some crudely hand-painted, some professionally printed advertising everything from debris hauling, carpet cleaning and bathtub re-glazing to high-tech services such as video production and computer consulting.
Tom Larson, a professor of economics at Cal State Los Angeles who has done research on South Central, says such entrepreneurs represent “bootstrap businesses,” which operate in a largely unnoticed, underground economy.
“At the margins, people are trying to do their own businesses,” Larson says. “It’s encouraging to see. There is a positive story to be told here.”
Hair-braider Fisher-Reece certainly feels that way. In fact, she says she owes her success to the fences which sprung up after the riots.
Although she occasionally places ads in local inner-city newspapers like The Wave and the L.A. Watts Times, Fisher-Reece says 75 percent of her clients come from the hundreds of posters she hangs on fences throughout the region.
“Before the riots, I used to pass out cards and flyers,” she says. The fences “really gave me a chance to advertise.”
In the five years since the riots, business has tripled, she says. Now, instead of braiding hair in her home, she operates two beauty salons and employs eight people.
“I can definitely attribute it to the new locations to advertise because of the riots,” she says.
Advertising on the fences provides an opportunity to reach a clientele “on a limited budget, that is looking for a bargain,” adds Bill Smith, president of Harrison-Ross Funeral Homes, which has recently experimented with the signs.
“It’s a Pennysaver kind of thing,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘We’re willing to deal with the little guy.'”
Unfortunately, it also is illegal, says Joe Clark, senior building inspector for the city’s Building and Safety Department.
The banners constitute a traffic hazard because they block the ability of motorists to see around corners, according to Clark. In addition, the signs, which usually are fastened to fences with lengths of wire or plastic garbage-bag ties, occasionally become loose and fly free, posing a potential danger to pedestrians and motorists.
The department regularly receives complaints about the signage, usually from neighborhood groups and the offices of City Council members, Clark says. When that happens, an investigator contacts the property’s owner, who is responsible for removing them.
In most cases, the owner promptly complies and the signs promptly return.
“There is no way for us to stop them from doing it,” Clark admits.
“It’s a visual nuisance,” adds Philip Hart, project manager for the West Angeles Cathedral, a seven-acre, $50 million project now under construction in the Crenshaw district. The fences encircling that construction site are plastered with the signs.
Hart dispatches crews to remove the banners at least once a month. “It’s visual pollution as far as I’m concerned.”
Despite his annoyance, Hart accepts the signs as a fact of life in the inner city. “It’s an active way of advertising around here,” he says. “And let’s face it, it’s a lot cheaper than taking an ad in the newspaper.”