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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'White girl' who invaded MacArthur Park now reporting from Arizona

March 17, 2011 |  2:28 pm

DevinBrowne A furor erupted a year ago when a couple of young white women launched a blog about their life in MacArthur Park, a neighborhood west of downtown L.A. crowded with Central American immigrants.

Writer Devin Browne and photographer Kara Mears were derided as, among other things, a couple of voyeurs and “cultural tourists”— more intent on separating themselves from their new community and their immigrant roommates than in providing meaningful reporting about a community with little power.

At the time, I called the attacks on the two self-described "white girls" overblown, giving them little credit for their commitment to the neighborhood, particularly by Browne, who worked there as a schoolteacher for more than two years.

That's not to say that some of their diary entries for “The Entryway” didn't come across as naïve and overly self-referential. They did. And the bloggers also did too little initially to try to delve into the lives of the immigrants around them, including their apartment mates, Juan and Maria.

Little to nothing has been said about how the blog ended (on a relatively strong note) or what has happened since. Browne remains interested in immigration but now reports more formally, from Phoenix, as part of a team of reporters covering the border for public radio. Mears, who said she needed to earn a living and not do journalism for virtually nothing, returned to her native Massachusetts.

Browne, 27, acknowledged in an interview some of the shortcomings of the L.A. project. But she said she remains committed to telling the story of immigrants.

“It’s about home and belonging and people fighting over space and who can live here and who can’t,” she said in a phone interview from Phoenix. “Those are my favorite themes.”

Since being hired by KJZZ in Phoenix in November, Browne has completed many stories about life on the border. One three-part series described how Americans go to Mexican border towns to get cheap medical and dental care. Another piece looked at the booming industry built around border security technology. A third described immigrants' attachment to the discount retailer La Curacao.

Her work for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s “Fronteras” project shows considerably more traditional news reporting and editing than Browne employed at the start of her Los Angeles blog.

The young writer said she welcomes the new structure that comes with her radio work. She admits that “The Entryway” bogged down because it focused too inwardly on Mears and herself, rather than the immigrants living around them.

“We tried to do both,” Browne said. “That was either bold or crazy. I would never try it again.”
While she acknowledges that much of the criticism about “The Entryway” (a double entendre on the spot the women occupied in their small apartment, as well as L.A.’s role as a gateway for immigrants) “was perfectly valid,” Browne also feels critics didn’t give her credit for being more than a dilettante.

She spent more than 2½ years in MacArthur Park, much of it as a full- or part-time substitute teacher at Esperanza Elementary School. Her last piece for "The Entryway" showed a depth of reporting and engagement not evident in some of the previous entries.

“Not Quite Trilingual” shows the struggles of one little girl to become fluent in any of her everyday languages — the English she used at school, the Spanish spoken by most of her friends or the Mayan language that her parents brought with them from Guatemala.

Steven Mikulan, a onetime L.A. Weekly journalist who helped edit the piece, said he thought it showed how Browne was growing as a journalist.  He noted how many self-starting reporters finding their way on the Web do not get the guidance once provided by traditional newsrooms.

But Browne is getting that direction now and enjoying it. She has no plans to abandon the story of immigrants any time soon. "I have wanted to work full-time as a reporter for a lot of years," Browne said. "That's the only reason I left L.A., to do that. And this is really a great place right now to be an immigration reporter."

-- James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Journalist Devin Browne of the controversial blog "The Entryway" talks to kids in MacArthur Park. Browne left Los Angeles last year for Phoenix, where she's now doing radio reports on the border for  the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's "Fronteras" desk. Credit: Louise Baker Lee.