A Year After Los Angeles Riots, Few Beacons of Hope in US Cities

A YEAR ago, large swaths of Los Angeles were devastated by civil unrest that followed the acquittal of four police officers on charges of beating motorist Rodney King. From the rubble of the riots, a parade of politicians called for no less than the rebirth of the American city.

Los Angeles, they claimed, could become the literal and metaphorical laboratory for a new agenda to mend the nation's ailing cities. One year later, an overwhelming consensus embraces a sobering progress report:

* "Nothing has happened," says J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the United States Conference of Mayors.

* "Nothing happened," says Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey.

* "Progress? The short answer is no," says Tidwell, director of research for the National Urban League.

* "The effects of L.A. [riots] have dissipated in record time without any change in national policy or visible constructive response," says George Peterson, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

The reasons for the lack of progress are clear, urban experts say. Immigration, unemployment, homelessness, and crime - the major contributors to urban woe - have not significantly decreased since the L.A. riots. At the same time, attempts to reverse the decline in federal aid to cities have been hamstrung by the federal budget deficit.

"When budget crunches come, the cities get pushed to last," says Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "And when the government turns its back on cities, the business community generally follows suit."

From 1981 to 1992, federal aid to cities was cut by nearly two-thirds. Urban-action grants and general revenue-sharing programs were axed completely. Other programs took big cuts: For example, community-development block grants were reduced by 36.5 percent, employment and training funds by 70.6 percent, and assisted housing money by 66.8 percent.

"Lack of government support seriously undermines attempts to get other players to the table," says Louis Fox, professor of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio.

PROFESSOR Fox insists that President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic stimulus package, stopped cold in the Senate last week, would have been a small push in the right direction. But most analysts agree that the real reason why cities remain troubled is the state of the economy.

"There is just not enough economic demand generated by the projected 2.5 percent US growth rate to pull fledgling inner-city economic cores up by the bootstraps," says Debra Ford, an associate professor of real estate at the University of Baltimore.

There are some causes for hope, however, including major new advances in community policing techniques. And there are the seeds of a new activism that is spreading without waiting for government aid. "Private, grass-roots, and community-oriented groups have come out of the woodwork to help themselves," Dr. Tidwell says.

In Chicago and Cleveland, for example, transportation cooperatives have organized to connect inner-city residents with jobs in the suburbs. In Providence, R.I., private organizations match underemployed workers with refurbishable housing for no money down. In Los Angeles, a grass-roots organization known as L.A. Renaissance has developed seven successful programs for black entrepreneurs.

"This is a response to the total reversal of the Great Society programs of the '60s," says the Rev. John Cager, manager of L.A. Renaissance. "Federal programs like CETA [the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] and JTPA [the Job Training Partnership Act] failed because they just threw money at the problems until things quieted down. So we're starting our own."

There is also action pending by the federal government. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros is preparing two major urban-policy initiatives that will be unveiled soon.

One embraces a new approach to "enterprise zones" that goes beyond British models of simple tax abatements to combine resources from different federal agencies - for example, the Department of Education on schools and the Department of Health and Human Services on child care. Part of Mr. Cisneros's plan is to remove regulations that work against job creation.

The secretary's other idea is to create community development banks that will help attract commercial lenders and credit unions back to the inner city.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Bradley is talking about what he calls a new "politics of conversion" - an inexpensive alternative to abandoning cities. Under the umbrella term, "Urban-Community-Building Initiative," Bradley this month introduced eight bills that embrace such "conversion" concepts. Among other actions, the bills would create Community Capital Partnerships to facilitate high-risk loans and "15-Month Houses" to provide child care for young working mothers.

The cost of Bradley's plan: $1.4 billion annually, slightly more than the cost of four days of rioting in L.A.

"The combination of ideas being forwarded by Cisneros and Bradley will set forth programs that take the urban agenda more seriously than anytime in 12 years," Mr. Peterson says.

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