THE Los Angeles riots of 1992 have moved off the front pages, but their legacy of physical devastation remains in the front yards of South Central Los Angeles and beyond.
While police officials, businessmen, and other citizens here say life has returned to pre-riot normalcy, the skeletons of 1,229 structures punctuate the urban landscape with disconcerting randomness, like craters on the moon.
A spokesman for the City of Los Angeles's Department of Building and Safety says the first of several waves of letters were sent out last week giving businesses 60-day deadlines for demolition and clearance. He predicts total compliance will take six months, based on the staggered sending of notices and the permit processing for disposing of hazardous materials, such as asbestos.
The president of a local reconstruction company says the frames of collapsed wood, mortar, and steel will be gone in four months if fire victims can get insurance money or government loans in time. But several residents predict a blighted landscape for two to four years.
Sidewalks are clean. Rubble and twisted steel are neatly confined behind temporary cyclone fences. Yellow police tape marked "Do Not Cross" encircles abandoned gas stations and other businesses from dry cleaners to liquor stores.
There are a few dramatic success stories: The ABC Market at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Western Avenue - looted by hundreds and partially torched - reopened after 18 days with a new floor, ceiling, aisles, checkouts, windows, and facade.
But radiating out in invisible, concentric circles from "ground zero" at the corner of Normandie and Florence Avenues to as far away as 15 miles, the large majority of charred shells of mini-malls and businesses remain as eyesores and reminders of the country's worst-ever urban violence.
One major factor slowing down rebuilding is the time-consuming process of matching owners' addresses with their damaged buildings, according to Nick Delli Quadri, senior structural engineer for the Department of Building and Safety.
"People don't want to walk by here," says the owner of a Koreatown travel agency that escaped damage itself but shares a wall with a leveled mall. The chain-link fence that keeps rubble and blackened beams from sliding into her parking lot does not hold back a stinging smell or the blowing ash that lightly dusts her customers' cars.
She claims business is off 80 percent, but the owner of a doughnut shop next door says business is up. "There are fewer places to go now," she says. "So they have to come here."
Cleanup efforts continue piecemeal. At the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, three shirtless Hispanics attack fallen sid- ing with sledges and rakes.
A sign is posted on one steel girder that now curls into the rubble: "Design & Construction Co. will draw architectural plans permit from city and construction for your burndown [sic] shopping centers, stores, office buildings & residential buildings. Free estimate call...." Mike Sidhu, president of California Design and Construction, says his rates for clearing a 50-by-50-foot lot run from $6,000 to $50,000. Rebuilding estimates average $30 per square foot.
The city Department of Building and Safety is sending letters to business owners with deadlines for clearance, after which the city takes over with set rates.
What is it like living shoulder to shoulder with such decimation? Interviews with business owners and residents across several neighborhoods elicit diverse responses: shrugs, chagrin, anger, and hope.
"You know, this is a huge opportunity for thousands of people to start over," says one man, who doesn't want to give his name. "A lot of these places needed to go."
Contradictions abound, even within a single conversation. "We'd like it if the riots told people to stay where they are and stop coming to California," says Gladys Morrison, a 28-year resident. "No, really and truly, there is room for us all here. These are the best people in the world."
Several Korean store owners say business is the worst it has been in years, partly because of recession, but partly because of reduced pedestrian and other shopping traffic. "Business very slow," says the owner of a Korean beauty salon in Na Sung Plaza. "People call ahead to see if things are OK. They are afraid of coming to Koreatown."
Large signs at several burned-out sites broadcast the owner's intentions.
"Wherehouse Will Be Back!" says one banner. "We will rebuild," announces McMahon Medical Clinic in red spray paint on plywood.
For every person who is packing up to leave, several more don't even consider the prospect.
"These neighborhoods are the sweetest in town," says one woman, whose back yard faces a full city block of destroyed businesses.
"Sure, it's devastating. But you don't leave your home behind. You clean up and move forward."