Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

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Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sam Tyler
Reviewed by Sam Tyler
Summary: On average, during the 90s/00s every three days a black man was murdered in South Central. Per population this was around 40 times higher than the normal US murder rate. What were the reasons and the solutions to make the streets safer – or is there nothing that could be done?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9781784700768

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There are enough LA rappers around to attest that living as a black man in South Central is no easy task. Dismiss these urban lyricists at your peril, as crude they may be, but Ghettoside will soon inform the disbeliever that life on the streets of LA is hard. With a 40 times higher chance of being murdered than a white person in America, what made the LA of the 80s through to the late 2000s such a dangerous place to live for young black men?

This is the question that journalist and author Jill Leovy has spent years trying to discover, having spent time working alongside the Homicide Detectives in one of the deadliest beats in America. Ghettoside is full of facts and figures about the lack of compassion for the poor in LA and adds a touch of spice into the mix by following a fictionalised style retelling of the real murder of a detective's son on the streets of LA.

Mashing together pure non-fiction with a heightened writing style is very hard to pull off. Leovy humanises the events in South Central by exploring them through the eyes of several characters. If you were unaware these characters existed you may feel like they are made up in the author's head. Leovy delves into their emotions and motivations. You can glean this type of thing from interviewing a subject to an extent, but you can ever truly know what someone else is thinking? At times the books acts like a dumbed down style of non-fiction and struggles to feel legitimate enough for a subject as emotive as the deaths of hundreds of people.

If you are happy with the narrative style, there are still issues with the structure as a whole. This is a very well-meaning book, but also meanders a lot. At the centre is the case of a murdered man, who also happens to be a detective's son; this dominates the middle third of the book. Leading up to this Leovy seemingly writes up her literature review giving a deep background into the history of black people in America and the statistical fact that you are more likely to be murdered in that country if you are black. The issue is that it jumps all over the place, haphazardly interweaving a history lesson with the focused story. You are just starting to understand the case, when you are taken on another voyage of discovery.

The shame is that this is a very powerful book and anyone reading it will be informed, moved and depressed. If you separate the fiction style elements from the pure data you have two very interesting streams. On its own the case is powerful and shows that even the death of a detective's son cannot help the situation, whilst the pure data is the most powerful thing of all. On several occasions Leovy lists the number of deaths over a couple of months. Every three days or so another young black man is murdered in a relatively small area and nothing seems to change.

Ghettoside is a great book hamstrung by trying to fit too much into one thing. If Leovy had created a single account of a case, or written a more academic work exploring the data, you would have been either informed or entertained. As it is, in some parts you are impressed with the book, in others you are bemused by the toing and froing.

For more non-fiction that blurs the lines between reality and the imagination a little better try The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter or The Last Escaper by Peter Tunstall.

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