LOS ANGELES — Only miles from the scenic vistas and celebrity mansions that draw sightseers from around the globe — but a world away from the glitz and glamour — a bus tour is rolling through the dark side of the city's gang turf.
Passengers paying $65 each Saturday signed waivers acknowledging they could be crime victims and put their fate in the hands of tattooed ex-gang members who say they have negotiated a cease-fire among rivals in the most violent gangland in America.
If that sounds daunting, consider the challenge facing organizers 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."
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 neighborhoods where tens of thousands of residents have been lured into gang life.
The unmarked chartered coach wound its way 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 neighborhood, 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.
Gray warehouses soon merge with single-story stucco homes as the bus heads south. Few gangsters risk hanging out on street corners, as local rules mean they could get arrested even for congregating, but graffiti on walls, road signs and convenience store fronts betray the presence of Florencia 13 and other gangs.
Junior high school teacher Prisca Ricks, 37, was of two minds about going on the tour after reading critical blog comments about it being "ghettotainment."
Ultimately, she was pleased she went, and said she appreciated the focus on trying to help the community.