Several months ago I had to drive to downtown Los Angeles on a business matter. As I entered the downtown area, I began to see tents and improvised living units (ILUs) along the sidewalks, under bridges and along off-ramps and on-ramps.
As I neared my destination, an agglomeration of multi-storied towers and edifices, I came upon what was once a beautiful park. It appeared to at one time have had fine manicured lawns for upon which, people could walk, rest, picnic, enjoy the sun and play games. It had a small lake where people could rent paddle boats and watch birds and other aquatic creatures use their habitat.
Now it is domain filled with the same eyesores that plagued the city streets. It was obvious that the tax-paying public, particularly the children, could never venture into or enjoy this environmentally pleasing habitat and its amenities. They are being robbed of their legacy.
A month later I spent some time with my wife in Peru. Peru is an emerging economy, yet by no means the equivalent of the United States in stature. As one leaves the area of the international airport in Lima, one can see a landscape of ramshackle housing, yet people seem to be working in many ways. They are cleaning the streets, vending beverages and snack foods to those snarled in traffic. They are washing vehicles in the parking lots at airports, providing a number of menial services.
As we traveled in to the Miraflores, San Isidro and Central districts, one could see residences and small businesses each surrounded by walls, almost all topped with barbed wire, cut glass, security spikes including electrified wire. We also saw an amazing amount of police presence in one form or another. Major businesses had their own private security personal plainly posted at all entrances. There were no homeless visible on the streets, sleeping on sidewalks, entryways or near trash collection bins. Why, you ask? Simply because it is not allowed. It is not condoned. Laws on loitering and vagrancy are strictly enforced. The streets do not reek of urine or fecal matter. Public health in major cities takes precedence over an individual right to deprecate oneself. Little or no panhandling is observed, because it is unacceptable. If one needs or wants money, they must work, even if it is the most menial jobs. There is no job that is beneath someone to do. If one goes out into the countryside, people are working — either planting, harvesting and processing the vast array of crops. Roads are being built, maintained and repaired. Everyone is working.
In the Sacred Valley and beyond, people appear by our standards to live in poverty, yet they are proud of their homes, live as families, raise their children and work hard. They are proud of who they are and do not look for government largesse, no matter how well intentioned. People living on their floating reed villages on Lake Titicaca point to the government installed solar outhouses and laugh because they do not work. They are more inclined to row five minutes to shore to do their business as they have done for hundreds of years.
Yes, there are impoverished areas on the outskirts of the major cities in Peru. Peru is just now recovering from an economic recession from the nineties. Some areas on the coast were hit hard by a tsunami and are now just recovering. While Peru is prone to earthquakes, the Incas designed and built their architecture to withstand them. That is why one can see their cities and fortress today despite the razing of many by the Spanish.
Peru is an emerging economy. It has the potential to be a vibrant one unlike its neighbor, Venezuela. They will have their growing pains, but they do recognize that to entice tourism, they cannot have their city streets resemble those of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. When does misplaced compassion for the individual trump (pardon the pun) the overall well-being of society? Perhaps, the Peruvians have something to teach us about dignity and self-pride.
Gregory E. Laskowski is a retired supervising criminalist with the Kern County District Attorney Forensic Science Division in Bakersfield, where he supervised the Major Crimes Unit. He has more than thirty years experience as a forensic scientist with both the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Kern County District Attorney’s Office.