LOS ANGELES — THIS city that has become a symbol of black anger and urban despair, as it did 27 years ago, now stands on the threshold of a profound test that may hold important lessons for the decline or rebirth of the American city.
Buoyed by the community esprit de corps that has emerged from the rubble of three days of rioting, city and neighborhood leaders are looking ahead to what they hope will be a reconstruction effort unprecedented in United States history.
They envision drawing money and manpower from all segments of the public and private sector - including raising money, if necessary, from Japanese companies that do business here - to help repair the city physically and spiritually. They talk pridefully of Los Angeles becoming a "prototype" for the revitalization of all inner cities.
Another vision, though, lurks in the minds of some who worry that if the effort isn't successful, urban Los Angeles will degenerate into a sort of post-industrial, "Blade Runner" existence. Under this scenario, what middle class is left in the inner city flees, businesses don't rebuild, and an alienated underclass is left behind to exist in a lawless landscape.
Both visions probably reflect some of the hyperbole of the moment but underscore the depth of the catharsis the city is going through.
"This is a new point in history and maybe something new can come," says Jack Katz, a sociologist at the University of California Los Angeles.
Those who believe opportunity can be born of crisis have been heartened by the community response in the days since the looting and arson.
As the city resumes more of a sense of normalcy amid a still- substantial law-enforcement presence, residents have been donating food and clothes to those left destitute, peace marches have filled streets, spontaneous broom-and-shovel brigades have formed, and enclaves of all colors and creeds have been reaching out to each other.
Behind the bonhomie of the moment, however, are problems that will take years to heal. Key to this effort will be California's favorite miracle man, Peter Ueberroth, who has been called on to head a special task force to oversee reconstruction. The former baseball commissioner, who successfully shepherded the city through the 1984 Olympics, promises to scour the globe for private funding - something that hasn't been done in past urban-renewal efforts.
He says he won't take the job until he gets commitments of assistance from the private sector, government at all levels, and the city's ethnic communities. Analysts say his involvement would give the city a psychological boost and open doors to the white corporate community.
The challenge he faces, however, is by his own admission "massive." The cost of recovery from looting and fires that damaged as many as 10,000 buildings is expected to exceed $1 billion, when the price tag for lost merchandise and jobs is added in.
"It is clearly going to be very tough," says Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at the Denver Center for the New West. "This is really terrible. It is a disaster."
Mr. Kotkin notes that with the internationalization of downtown businesses, there is not the home-town corporate network to tap that was there after the 1965 Watts riots.
At that time, charred communities were aided in their recovery efforts by the federal war on poverty that pumped millions into inner-city jobs, housing, and education programs. But no similar effort exists today.
A major challenge will be to keep jobs and middle-class residents from fleeing the inner city in the wake of the unrest. Some developers are already promising new investments in South-Central, where much of the damage occurred, but other shop owners say they can't afford to rebuild.
One key to the recovery will be the Korean community, which owns many of the businesses in the area. Korean merchants sustained some of the most extensive damage in patterns that some believed were the result of black resentment. Thus, some analysts say there will be an exodus of Korean-owned stores.
Others are more sanguine about reconstruction. Many of the businesses destroyed were service-oriented - small food and clothing shops. People in the area will still need the goods, giving owners a strong incentive to rebuild.
When they do, the majority are likely to be predominantly Latino and Asian-owned and run, reflecting a further squeeze on blacks. South-Central, the largest black enclave in the Western US, is becoming Hispanic as new immigrants move into the area.
Blacks also have faced an array of social problems since Watts: joblessness, poor housing, lack of education, inadequate health care.
Moreover, unlike in the aftermath of the 1965 riots, when their political power was on the rise, black clout is diminishing.