Black Friday in Los Angeles ended with LAPD issuing a tactical alert after a wave of smash-and-grab robberies swept the city. The brazen street robberies and flash mobs hitting stores and shoppers have been building up over the last year and are now in full bloom as we prepare for the holidays.
Looking online we see lots of finger pointing that blames:
Politicians who are soft on crime
Covid lockdowns that have impacted small businesses
Inherent inequality of capitalism creating these conditions
Police indifference in response to the defund the police movement
Normalization of mask-wearing
How these factors may play into this new robbery dynamic is complex. At the street level however, at the time of the robbery when a gun is pointed in your face, none of those philosophical reasons matter. While I encourage you to become active in creating the change you want to see, complex social change is outside the scope of this conversation.
Instead, Asphalt Anthropology is about being able to read the signs of a dynamic, exciting but often chaotic city environment. Knowing how to read the signs allow you to make decisions when seconds count so you can spend the rest of your time exploring the city with more freedom, boldness and joy.
Bad Sh*T Going Down? Let's Go Check It Out!
I began exploring the crime spike on Melrose when a friend and L.A. tour guide sent me a video of three diners getting robbed at gun point on Melrose back in September. She wanted my take on the events with thoughts on how folks visiting the area could stay safe.
Melrose is an area that I had visited occasionally, but it is not an area that I was intimately familiar with like I am with other parts of the city. So rather than comment on a video lasting a mere sixteen seconds that focuses on the crime itself, in an area I only knew slightly, I did what any Asphalt Anthropologist would do... I started spending more time there getting to know the people, the geography and culture.
This research led me to learn from a wide variety of experts on the area that includes store owners, models, pop-up retailers, designers, undercover vice cops, life-long residents and the sneakerheads and hypebeasts who drive the scene.
Each offered their own take on the current events on Melrose. Taken as a whole they point to a cohesive logic for what we are seeing now and how you can equip yourself to dodge trouble.
Shortly after the diners were robbed I headed over to Melrose to check out the café where it happened.
The café itself is quite small, mostly a place to refresh with a juice or smoothie while taking a quick break from shopping. Outside its doors, in a recessed entry, there are usually about 3 tables. The table that was hit was the one closest to the street, but still recessed enough to have limited view of the sidewalk. Note in the video (above) how quickly the thieves were on top of the targets before the targets even knew what was happening.
My initial instinct was that the placement of the table was a big part of the problem as it provided low visibility of the street. That proved to be only a small part of the equation however. It was only as I began to understand Melrose in a larger context that the crime began to make sense.
As I cased the café one afternoon, I met two uniformed LAPD officers on foot patrol. Their mission was to educate the public on staying safe and their advice was pretty general:
Don't walk around with valuables
Wear a cross body bag
If you must have valuables in your car, hide them
This is good advice for anywhere, so I pressed them for more information.
One of the officers is also an undercover vice cop who told me that a lot of cash floats around Melrose. One source of cash is easy to spot, the pop-up shops and the informal buying and selling of apparel on the street between random people. I spotted teenagers, no older than 15, selling shoes and carrying around rolls of one hundred dollar bills on the street. More officially, Melrose is lined with brick-and-mortar resale shops ready to put cash in the hands of sellers. Less visible however, the vice cop told me, was the underground gambling. It's not something the average Melrose visitor would see, but it is there for those who are in the know.
Fairfax/Melrose In Context
To understand what is happening on a larger scale across the U.S., we'll examine ground zero of where fashion and street crime meet: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles' Fairfax District. This 3.2 square mile section is a microcosm of what we are seeing on a broader scale. To understand why these types of robberies are flourishing on Melrose now, we'll start with a quick look at the area's history and place within the city.
The Fairfax District is in the heart of Los Angeles, easily accessible from West Hollywood/Sunset Strip, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the Mid-Wilshire Corridor. For tourists it is a dream location with Instagram worthy murals and the latest in fashion. Surrounding the shopping district are picturesque homes in quiet neighborhoods within walking distance to trendy shops and restaurants.
Decades before the recent rash of robberies, the Fairfax District became headquarters for the cool kids. Fairfax High School sits in the heart of the district on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax Avenues.
Notable Fairfax High alumni include rock-n-rollers, Flea, Slash and other members from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Wallflowers, The Foo Fighters and Guns N' Roses and hot girls like actresses Mila Kunis and Demi Moore (whaddya know, they have more in common than a husband!) and models Chanel Iman and Karrueche Tran.
I learned much of Fairfax/Melrose history from comedienne and actor, Terry Bolo who grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from Fairfax High in 1969. A founding member of the improv group The Groundlings, headquartered on Melrose, Terry's article "When Everything Was GROOVY...." is a primer on the early days of Melrose cool.
The 80's cemented Melrose as the place to be and it is all centered around cutting edge fashion. The coolest stores were resale shops that curated the hottest and edgiest fashions. As I have learned about the history of the area what stands out to me is how little it has changed.
Sure, the fashions themselves have changed, but the business model of taking old and selling it to new buyers is what fundamentally defines commerce in the District. It is the very modern updates to this business model - that place you smack dab in the middle of the supply chain - that are driving the increase in robberies.
The Fast Fashion and HypeBeast Take Over
While resale shops have been around forever and are inherent to the Melrose economy, there are crucial changes in the fashion industry itself that have contributed to the 75% increase in armed robberies in the area.
Unfortunately, I have heard many racist comments in discussions of the problems. Defaulting to racial profiling is lazy, boring and makes people less safe. So let's go more than skin deep and explore the multi-cultural, global hypebeast business strategy that is driving these felonious fashion trends:
The demand for "fast fashion". Fast fashion copies the hottest trends and makes them quickly and cheaply available to the public. Timing is everything with fast fashion - they are short cycles of trendiness that quickly move on to the next thing.
The rise of high end brands partnering with influencers. While it does have its pitfalls (see Dior's Travis Scott nightmare) it is mostly good for brands and good for influencers. For the consumer, it adds emotion to the urgency to have the latest looks from their idols.
Limited drops. This is a business strategy used by brands to generate scarcity and therefore create urgent demand for their products. Which is more profitable: selling 1,000 units or ten units of a hundred different products each hyped to the hilt? This way a consumer wants a hundred different products rather than just one. This strategy isn't limited to just streetwear brands like Golf and Supreme. Nike, Foot Locker and other mainstream brands are in on the deal. In fact, hype around a Nike shoe release in August left Jayren Bradford, a Shoe Palace employee shot to death.
Hypebeast culture: "A sense of exclusivity that cultivates materialistic tendencies—the more expensive and scarce the goods are, the greater the prestige." This puts consumers and the people that supply them on a never ending treadmill to find the next thing. If you happen to be in possession of what can be flipped for a profit, you are merely a part of the supply chain.
The demand from consumers for resale items. The resale market is expected be a $51 Billion dollar industry by 2023. This is being driven by uncertainty in traditional supply chains and a desire for sustainability from consumers. While LAPD is focusing on gang connections in these robberies, even individuals now have an outlet via powerful platforms like The RealReal and ThredUp to sell. So now if you get robbed of your own possessions, you can go buy them back and be two separate links in the supply chain.
You Are Part of the Supply Chain
Prior to investigating Melrose and the business strategies that are driving fashion, I would walk Melrose, but I didn't really see the street at all. After taking the time to learn more about the culture that drives the community, I see it like this:
Hype + Scarcity = More Valuable Than New
This means you are now a part of the supply chain.
After learning to decode the violence on Melrose, so much seems obvious to me now that I didn't see before. I snapped the above picture casually at the time, but in hindsight it captures everything that can go wrong on Melrose right now: the ethos is literally written on the wall, "More valuable than new" while dude is walking around showing the whole street exactly what he's got.
This takes us back to the three diners robbed at gun point in September. While I initially thought the primary problem was the low visibility of the table, more importantly is the fact that they were sitting in a high-robbery area with their new purchases spread out all over the table. It was a golden opportunity to score free inventory for the thieves.
Street Smart Shopping
If you come to Melrose, or want to apply what we've learned from Melrose wherever you are, here are my top tips for street smart shopping:
Mindset: You are part of the supply chain. Everything you have is fair game to thieves.
Hide your valuables. Of course this includes cash, your phone and your purchases - that should be a no-brainer. Thieves will target you for the popular or rare shoe or article of clothing you may be wearing. They are also targeting people based on the jewelry and clothes they are wearing and the type of vehicle they are driving. Conspicuous consumption is not your friend on the street.
Use re-usable, nondescript bags for your purchases rather than the store's bag. I know the bag is part of the exclusive feeling and carrying your new purchases in a Trader Joe's bag is not cool, but it is street smart. Go ahead and grab the store bag and use it to give a gift in, but if you walk around with it, you are advertising your status as a robbery target.
Thieves will often follow you for a bit waiting for their opportunity to strike. Plan accordingly. Periodically check your back for people following you. Don't dawdle, get your stuff and GTFO. Alternatively, if you want to dawdle, window shop, get that selfie with the famous murals and hang out, don't do it with a bunch of new purchases hanging from your arm.
Ask your retailer to ship to you. This is not always available, but if they can, this means you can leave the store empty handed of tempting merch.
Here's a twist. While it feels like crime is up these days, it is actually down overall. What is increased is the willingness to use violence. If someone robs you, whether or not you see a weapon, thieves are now more willing to shoot you and your loved ones dead. The safest thing for you is to hand over whatever they want and let them go on their way. Things are replaceable, you are not.
Early in my research, I spoke with a model, Dee, who told me about the same types of robberies happening in higher-end shopping districts elsewhere in the city. Those were kept quiet by the huge global brands that had been victimized because they didn't want to scare away customers. Alternatively, the stores on Melrose are generally smaller independent shops so they have been more vocal as the impact to them is greater. But as we move closer to the holidays, Dee's insight is becoming more apparent - that all kinds of stores in all kinds of neighborhoods are being targeted. It almost doesn't matter what the merch is as long as thieves have the networks in place to move stolen goods.
Now that you know you are part of the supply chain, shop accordingly.
oh, by the way... just as I'm getting ready to publish this, news of another robbery in the middle of a busy restaurant targeting diners on Melrose has hit the news. Stay safe out there!
I am working on a travel safety book on street smart tactics for enjoying L.A. There will be more information on this topic in the book that was too complex to share here in time for holiday shopping 2021. So be sure to subscribe here and be the first to know when the book is available!