During and after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the media’s portrayal of South Central Los Angeles was unrelentingly grim: a bombed-out danger zone beyond hope or redemption. Despite the odds and the unwavering pessimism of the press, family values, hard work and entrepreneurship prevail in this besieged but resilient community. In No Loans Today, filmmaker Lisanne Skyler lets the residents speak for themselves. This beautifully shot and respectful film looks behind the headlines and offers viewers a fresh, inside perspective on some of the determined and persevering people in South Central Los Angeles. Part of POV, broadcast television’s only continuing forum for non-fiction film, No Loans Today will air nationally Tuesday, July 9 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).
No Loans Today reveals the real-life stories and the strategies for survival of a community confronted by economic marginalization. The neighborhood’s economy declined as industries began to leave the area in the 1950’s. Banks began to “redline” places like South Central, denying loans to businesses with “undesirable” zip codes. Johnnie Richardson, owner of Rite-Tune Tune Up, describes his struggle to open his business in 1974. A former teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, he says he “had all the things that were required to get a loan but I was not able to get a loan so I drew out on my retirement and started this business.” James Washington, owner of King’s Original Hot Tamales, speaks warily of the banking world’s insidious catch-22: “If I go down to the bank to get $100,000 to set this thing up, I never would get it unless I got $100,000… If I got $100,000 to put up, I don’t need to borrow no money.” Instead, Washington and some friends pooled their savings to open the restaurant. Audrey Cunningham, a recovering crack addict and mother of three, has created her own micro-version of a bank: she loans money to friends, five dollars now for ten or fifteen to be repaid later.
The focal point of the film is the ABC Loan Company, a 25-year-old black-owned pawnshop and check-cashing outlet where business is brisk. “Fringe banks” like ABC have proliferated in South Central in the past decade as traditional banks have become a rarity. People in the neighborhood come in to cash their welfare, social security, and pay checks for a fee; when money gets tight, they pawn household merchandise for cash to tide them over until the next check arrives. The next month, the cycle repeats itself: they cash their checks, redeem their items, pay the interest, and start all over again, with nothing left for savings. ABC owner Herb Andrews says, “I remember a funny man come in here with his swimming trunks one time, wet, he just wanting fifty cents so he could catch the bus and he’s coming back tomorrow so don’t get rid of them because he’s swimming tomorrow. People come in here, they’ve got their stories. Everybody’s got a story.”
Cherry McGary Davis, owner of the 40-year-old McGary’s Cafe, one of the area’s oldest black-owned businesses says, “People are afraid to go to the large institutions — they don’t trust them in this area now.” Check-cashing outlets typically charge a fee of between 2 and 10%, but “that’s minor to them because if you go to the bank you have to have a certain amount in checking and savings, and some of them don’t have that extra income.”
While some residents are surviving South Central’s dim economic realities, others are still struggling courageously to overcome the economic and emotional injustices of life in the inner city. Wanda Hosea’s 17-year-old son was killed in a gang-related shooting. She says of his gang activity, “He had us all fooled for a while because he kept going to church every Sunday,” she says sadly. “I don’t think I could have saved him. That was his destiny to die like he did.” To overcome the tragedy of a slain son, she focuses on her surviving children. Of her twin daughters she says, “One’s in college. She loves it…I’m so proud of her…My other daughter’s married and she has her little baby to keep her company.”
Anthony Tucker, a burly, baby-faced gang member, wistfully recalls a lucrative part-time job he had installing bathtubs, showers, and ceilings. “It’s kind of hard for a young black guy who’s been in jail a few times to get a nice job,” he says candidly. Tucker’s friend, 23-year-old Aaron “Twin” McCloud, whose twin brother Avery was killed in a motorcycle accident, makes money fixing stereos, hooking up car alarms and stereos, and installing speakers. He, too, dreams of a steady full-time job. “If I get a chance I know I can succeed because I want to work,” McCloud tells the camera with heartbreaking enthusiasm. “That’s what I do, I’m real good at all that. I like electronics and music.”
Meanwhile, with banks slow to invest in the area, of the approximately 1,100 structures destroyed and damaged during the 1992 riots, only half have been rebuilt “We still need money to be funded to try to get the thing off the ground,” says Washington. He’s talking about his fledgling tamale restaurant, but his words ring true for everybody trying to make it in South Central. “We’re going to persist in the direction that we’re going and basically that’s it. And just pray to God that it works”
No Loans Today is a co-presentation of the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC).