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L.A.'s darkest days

Ten years ago today, the worst race riot in US history erupted in Los Angeles. Here, the story is told in three diverse lives.

(Page 5 of 7)

Although corporations pledged more than $1 billion in aid, only $382 million materialized before Rebuild L.A. disbanded in 1997. A technology center, a redevelopment agency, a development bank, and special zones to provide federal tax credits to investors also largely failed.

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"All these efforts failed because so few people were willing to invest heavily in poor neighborhoods," says Jurado.

Other events in the state were diverting cash and attention from South-Central's plight as well. One of the costliest disasters in US history, the Northridge earthquake, rocked the San Fernando Valley across town. Recession stole 550,000 California jobs, and a string of anti-immigrant ballot propositions – on health care, affirmative action, and bilingual education – fueled more cross-racial tension.

Two trials of O.J. Simpson – including claims that a racist police department was trying to frame him – kept the spotlight on the LAPD and its inability to produce reforms called for after the riots.

Today, a decade after the violence, there is reason for some optimism. The economic boom of the '90s is a large part of the reason. While there are huge sections of South-Central that appear little different than they did in 1992, approximately 85 percent of the properties damaged in the riots have been rebuilt. Only 170 are still vacant today.

New businesses in new buildings gleam from dozens of street corners – from Starbucks Coffee and Blockbuster Video, to Home Depot and Food For Less supermarkets. Thanks to over $3 billion in new mortgage loans, the percentage of those who own their own homes has risen, resulting in more pride of ownership.

"There is no question that these neighborhoods are better off now than they would have been if the riots hadn't happened," says Ali, on a drive through South-Central.

One lingering problem is that the vacant properties left behind are small, and not contiguous. So they're less useful for developers and most retailers, who prefer shopping malls on large tracts of land. Crime, while edging down from 1995 to 2000, is moving up slightly, thanks to the recent recession. Gang activity (a third of L.A.'s 55,000 gang members are in South Central) is on the rise, bringing more violent crimes.

Home sales and prices are up in many riot areas, though the number of businesses – reflecting a far longer trend – continues down (6,100 in 1991 to 5,100 in 2001).

Encouraged by what economic progress there is – and bolstered by signs of better race relations as well – Ali, Jurado, and Jang say they'll stay on task for the long haul. That means confronting a host of issues they feel can keep the momentum for change running in positive directions.

Most recently for Ali, the decade-long push for civic unity has meant creating and heading his own civil rights advocacy group. For Jurado, it has involved moving his emphasis from Latino voter empowerment to calling more attention to environmental issues that affect the urban environment and heading an organization focusing on political/cultural advancement for Salvadorans. And Jang, in addition to her congressional work, has helped produce a public affairs TV program on religious/cultural relations.

Jang says the years have taught her that getting along with other ethnic groups is basic in concept, but not easy in practice. It involves looking past skin color and getting to know people on a deeper level.

"I think the greatest hope for improved relations for Koreans and their ethnic neighbors lies with the second generation," she says. Often, the behavioral change she sees in Koreans is forced rather than welcome.

"Many are trying to change out of survival as business owners, not out of sincerity to better understand blacks and Hispanics," Jang says. "But the younger generation genuinely understand other races because they are rubbing shoulders with them at school and other organizations."