LOS ANGELES — SOUTH Central Los Angeles has more liquor stores than the state of Rhode Island. But it has only two movie theaters, a handful of banks, and fewer family restaurants than there are cuts of steak at Sizzler.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Community activists have been saying yes for years. Now, in a bold bid to do something about it, they are launching an initiative to convert liquor stores destroyed in last year's riots into other businesses. The drive, if successful, could become a national model for stemming alcohol-related crime and violence and fostering racial harmony in inner-city neighborhoods.
"It's an innovative approach," says Richard Scribner, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California and an expert on alcohol and violence. "Los Angeles is pretty much the leader in this area."
It hasn't had much choice. Before last year's civil unrest, South Los Angeles, an area of 500,000 people spread over 40 square miles that includes South Central, had 723 licensed liquor outlets. That put a minimarket selling wine and beer or a store selling hard liquor at virtually every major intersection.
While state law limits liquor outlets to one for every 2,500 residents, the stricture is enforced countywide. Thus some neighborhoods can exceed the limit while the county as a whole remains below the ceiling.
The stores proved popular targets during the riots. Cultural animus was a contributing factor. More than 200 were damaged or destroyed. Many of the stores are owned by Korean Americans, and local resentment has surfaced over the immigrants' success and some business practices. At the same time, the shops had become a focal point of black anger at the justice system. Shooting leads to boycott
In March 1991, the Korean owner of the Empire Liquor Market Deli shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins after the black girl stole a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.
The merchant was sentenced to five years' probation with no time behind bars. The incident, and several others like it, prompted blacks to boycott some Korean-owned businesses in South Central.
Even before these animosities, though - going back virtually to the Watts riots 28 years ago - ministers and neighborhood activists have rued the prevalence of liquor stores and the destructive influence of alcohol on urban life.
They complain about stores being magnets for crime: public drunkenness, drug dealing, theft, and prostitution. They worry about children walking past liquor stores or buying groceries in them.
"We don't think it is acceptable to have a liquor store on every corner," says Karen Bass of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment. "The point is not to drive businesses away but to have businesses that are productive to the community."
Studies have shown that alcohol plays a part in as many as two-thirds of all murders and suicides in the United States. A 1986 federal report identified alcohol abuse as the predominant health problem in the black community.
Since the riots, the city has taken steps to address the issue. It now requires special public hearings before issuing permits for liquor stores, gun shops, and certain other businesses. In March, the City Council blocked an effort by one liquor store owner to rebuild. Such actions have pleased community groups but angered some Asian entrepreneurs. Thus they joined with blacks and others in launching the conversion program.
"The idea was to find some common ground between us and organizations in South Central that are working" to reduce the concentration of liquor stores, says Erich Nakano of the Asian Pacific Planning Council. Others involved in the program include Asian Pacific Americans for a New L.A., a consortium of 40 community groups, and the substance-abuse coalition. City funds conversion
Operating with a $260,000 grant from the city, organizers will offer classroom training for those who want to start another business.
Even with aid, conversion won't be easy. Liquor stores have traditionally been profitable and easy to set up.
Tom Park lost his liquor store and grocery in last year's unrest. He is looking at replacing it with a laundromat. Still, Mr. Park isn't ruling out opening another store, with liquor on the shelves.
His bottom line: "When I come back, it has to be a profitable business."