America's City of Tomorrow Shaken - Still - by Past
FIVE YEARS AFTER L.A. RIOTS
Five years after the costliest riots in US history, Los Angeles has become neither the prototype of American urban revitalization that many had hoped nor the "Bladerunner" dystopia others had feared.Skip to next paragraph
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The city has rebuilt hundreds of buildings damaged during three days of rioting that turned Los Angeles into a worldwide symbol of racial anger and urban despair. Bridges have been built between disparate and distrusting groups. New opportunities have been created in inner-city neighborhoods - symbolized by a gas station in the heart of sprawling South Central that helps youths find jobs.
Yet many believe Los Angeles is no better off today than it was before the riots - and may be worse. Many neighborhoods in South Central remain pockmarked with abandoned buildings, and the ethnic tensions that helped ignite the unrest persist. Thus the city that is the nation's premier laboratory for multiculturalism moves forward still shaken by its past and uncertain of its future.
"On the cusp of the 21st century, Los Angeles has been probing two possibilities for the rest of urban America," says California historian Kevin Starr. "The city as a cutting edge of culture - say, a new Athens or Alexandria - or the city of the dreadful night. The story it has faced, that communities can be squandered and go up in smoke, is one that holds lessons for cities around the globe."
The civil unrest sparked by the acquittal of white police in the videotaped 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King hit 70 square miles of the city, damaging more than 10,000 businesses and costing $1 billion.
But amid the flames, there was hope. Helicopter-loads of politicians arrived in the heady days of the riot's aftermath, calling for a new progressivism in the city's leadership and a plan of public and private money to rebuild neighborhoods.
Recently, Los Angeles has begun putting some of the lessons learned from the 1992 riots into practice. But by and large, many observers say that the progress has been disappointing. The reason for this, they say, is tied to the continued inability of residents, community leaders, and public bodies to undo the underlying patterns of inequality that have existed for decades.
"Despite unprecedented, citywide soul-searching and the promise from national and even global attention [after the riots], Los Angeles is still a Balkanized city of separate, unequal societies," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black author and commentator.
"Despite some superficial changes..., I would venture to say this city is in many ways more divided into whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians than in 1992," he says.
The growing contrasts were highlighted by recent mayoral challenger Tom Hayden. He lamented the growing rich-poor gap between the city's Beverly Hills/Hollywood section and the run-down inner city. "These two poles of Los Angeles are broken apart like tectonic plates circling dangerously around each other, erupting every few decades in social earthquakes," he said.
This time around, the alliances of well-meaning, urban fixers ran into more than just the bureaucratic and political lethargy that plagued the Watts recovery 32 years ago:
* The 1994 Northridge earthquake - the costliest natural disaster ($30 billion) in US history - caused a shift of attention and resources out of riot areas to the San Fernando Valley.
* The worst recession in California history took 550,000 jobs away from southern California when many people had hoped that growth of manufacturing jobs would revitalize riot-torn neighborhoods.
* Passed in 1995, Proposition 187 called for an end to health and education services for illegal aliens. A year later, Prop. 209 called for the end of affirmative action in state and public hiring. Both propositions affected the pocketbooks and pride of many South Central residents, resulting in widespread racial tension.
* The ongoing saga of the Los Angeles Police Department has stayed in the national spotlight. Internal reforms initiated after the riots were tested in the two trials of O.J. Simpson, which examined institutional racism. The recent firing of black Police Chief Willie Williams is being seen as evidence that reforms did not move fast or far enough.