America's City of Tomorrow Shaken - Still - by Past
FIVE YEARS AFTER L.A. RIOTS
(Page 2 of 2)
Because nearly 50 percent of the damage from the 1992 riots was to Korean businesses (about 2,000 of them), much attention has been paid to Korean-Americans as the key to recovery. But socked by recession, the 1994 earthquake, and welfare reforms that have hurt their customer base, Koreans say they are now financially worse off than before.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Our economic situation has deteriorated further and further," says Chul Lee, editor of the Korea Times. Although most of the burned buildings that scarred Koreatown were quickly rebuilt, a known number of Korean retailers have moved to Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, or back to Seoul, he says. Many others have spread to different parts of Los Angeles. "The riots taught us a lesson that we have to loosen our grip on one local neighborhood and move on."
That loosening has helped undermine the model reforms called for after the riots.
Federal enterprise zones were supposed to give tax breaks to corporations willing to invest in the riot area. A centralized bank was supposed to spur minority businesses, and the Community Redevelopment Agency was supposed to free up revitalization reserves. Other programs from job training to interracial understanding workshops were slated.
What happened? "The bottom line is that all these good intentions ran into the real world," says Jack Kyser, president of the Los Angeles Economic Redevelopment Authority.
A combination of mismanagement, infighting, and overexpectation riddled the organization that was to be the centerpiece of riot recovery. Known as Rebuild L.A. (RLA), the nonprofit, public-benefit corporation was headed by organizational Wunderkind Peter Ueberroth, who resigned in 1994 after failing to attract needed corporate interest.
Also, Los Angeles was bypassed in when federal enterprise-zone monies were distributed because other cities went after the monies more aggressively. That, coupled with a change in White House administrations, may have cost the city nearly $1 billion in social-service grants, loans for commercial housing, and other programs.
"The city felt that because the enterprise model had been designed with them in mind, they were too complacent in campaigning for the money," says Linda Griego, current chief executive officer of RLA.
The "consolation" program that Los Angeles did win, the $430 million Community Bank, has had organizational and start-up problems, doling out only $3 million so far.
Despite numerous setbacks in the drive to bring a measure of prosperity to South Central, the overall picture is not hopeless. The recovery effort has had notable successes.
Of nearly 1,100 buildings damaged, half were fixed within six months. The other half had serious structural problems, and of those, only 200 remain empty or bulldozed, leaving vacant lots. A combination of absentee landlords and the inability to rent or sell retail plots in isolation has stalled efforts to build on these lots.
About $389 million of $500 million pledged by various corporations has now been expended in neighborhoods, including 17 new supermarkets, several strings of retail stores, gas stations, and other establishments. Disaster loans totaling $334 million have been dispersed.
"There is much to report in the way of rebuilding that is hard to see because the riot areas are so spread out," notes Mark Ridley Thomas, city councilman for the Eighth District, hardest hit in the riots.
There are also researchers, from among the scores of local academics who have studied the riot area, who are upbeat about the long-term prospects for South Central.
"There are demographic shifts here that include the influx of middle-class Hispanics which bode well for the future purchasing power of these neighborhoods," says Tom Larson, an associate professor at California State University, Los Angeles. "There is also a whole new level of commitment being addressed by community businesses that did not exist in the past. People are learning to rebuild on their own and not wait for government."
Indeed, new plans for a Rebuild Koreatown Project are well under way. Ideas include adding English to thousands of currently all-Asian signs and teaching merchants how to relate to non-Asian customers.
Koreatown "can no longer afford to be an island in isolation," says Korean business leader Nam Kouen Kim. "We must embrace our metropolitan neighbors of other cultures."