L.A. After the Trial: a Tale Of Two Cities, Two Families

From her kitchen table in a leafy suburb, housewife Toni Meyer explains why the fallout from the 1992 riots is one reason why she and her family are moving back to Wisconsin after eight years in Los Angeles.

``This city is being squeezed into haves and have-nots,'' Mrs. Meyer says, as two daughters swing in the backyard. ``I don't feel comfortable bringing up kids in the middle.''

Across town in South Central, black activist Mark Whitlock and his wife Hermia, a corporate lawyer, explain why their family of four will stay.

``This is a new beginning for the underclass in Los Angeles,'' Mr. Whitlock says after a jury last week exonerated two black men on the most serious charges of beating a white truck driver. ``A multiracial jury that wouldn't have existed 20 years ago has spoken. Symbolically, it's revolutionary.''

From the assault on Rodney King in March 1991 until the climax of the Reginald Denny beating trial last week, America's second-largest city has been the United States's premier lab for multi-ethnic studies. Now, with the city's two most infamous race-related court cases behind them, Angelenos are relishing an escape from the world spotlight.

But as the debate over racial, legal, and economic inequity moves off the front pages, a less public and more personal inquiry is just beginning.

INSTEAD of focusing on communitywide action, many residents are exploring what they can do as individuals to help solve the city's myriad problems - at home, in churches, in schools, and in the workplace.

The jury is still out on whether any of these steps will be enough to heal two years of civic trauma here.

``On one front, Los Angeles is showing its face seriously as a progressive world city of the 21st century,'' says California historian Kevin Starr. He points to a recent series of expensive public-works projects, from libraries to parks to freeways to commuter rails. ``But on the question of utterly basic human relations, the city is stuck playing catch-up.''

By nearly every account, solving this problem is the city's long-term challenge. The tale of two cities - one minority, one Anglo - can be seen in a tale of two families.

``I have to say to whites: Now you know what it feels like,'' says Hermia Whitlock, comparing the outrage may whites felt after the acquittal of the defendants in the Denny case with black rage after the initial exoneration of the white police officers in the beating of Mr. King.

In an animated, 90-minute living-room discussion, Mrs. Whitlock is not as sanguine about the future of Los Angeles as her husband, Mark. ``There is a lot of hatred out there,'' she says.

She says she feels alienated within her mostly white corporation, in part because she believes that promotions come harder for blacks than for Anglo workers. Mrs. Whitlock says the broad, white-dominated culture is so foreign to her that she joined a black church to find a place where she could truly be herself.

``Los Angeles is involved in a cycle that began a generation ago that will be very hard to break,'' says Alan Heslop, a social demographer at the Pomona, Calif.-based Rose Institute. Even more pronounced than in other large American cities, he says, a substantial portion of the white middle class fled to outlying suburbs, taking with them leadership, jobs, and the tax base. The exodus left behind minorities who feel increasingly isolated, underserved, and misunderstood.

The dramatic influx of new immigrants to the inner city has reinforced the long-term trend toward two economically separate but physically conjoined cities. Since the recent upheavals here, a second Anglo exodus has accelerated to distant ``exurbs'' like Palmdale, Riverside, Santa Clarita, Moreno Valley, and Victorville. Or out of state.

``I want to go where it's safe, where there are good schools, and where we can afford a nice home with money left over to do things,'' says homemaker Meyer. She explains how her daughter, Blake, attended private school until this year when the dramatic falloff in husband Glenn's contracting business made that financially impossible.

She describes a local public school where classes are jammed, many students don't speak English, and teachers are asking for volunteers to handle many duties. She is concerned about her daughter's safety walking to school one block away.

For her, L.A.'s crisis is a moral one. Several of her friends in the movie and entertainment industry are so wealthy that Meyer fears their ostentation provides a bad example for Blake. ``I don't want my kids growing up around those kinds of values,'' she says.

Claims that L.A.'s current crisis can serve as an opportunity to create a better city are heard less often now than in the aftermath of the Watts riots a quarter-century ago, some long-time residents say. The earlier disturbance gave birth to orchestras, poetry clubs, and a host of other programs designed to foster community spirit.

Many here complain that no such largess has followed the 1992 riots. That's hardly surprising given that Los Angeles is fighting the same budget woes that have hobbled other state and local governments during the past decade. The state Legislature, which is facing a nearly $8 billion revenue shortfall, has grabbed a significant share of the city's property tax revenues, leaving L.A. City Hall about $400 million in the hole.

``The cutbacks that Sacramento has taken from Los Angeles have hurt the city more than the riots ever did,'' argues Mike Davis, an urban planner.

At the same time, a national recession that has hit California particularly hard hampered the efforts of Rebuild L.A., the private coalition trying to target corporate money to help South Central recover from the '92 riots. To fill in the gaps, Mark Whitlock recently formed his own organization to help blacks break their cycle of financial and psychological dependence and poverty. Under the auspices of the First African Methodist Episcopaln church, his group, called L.A. Renaissance, offers mentoring, career development, financial, and other services.

Personal, community, and other grass-roots responses to Los Angeles's urban problems seem to be the order of the day. Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a minority advocacy group, says the level of interest in his organization by students, volunteers, and others disaffected with traditional governmental responses is soaring.

``We are getting a huge number of people from all walks of life saying [we] are right.... We can either abandon our cities to the poor or get involved ourselves in creating a new way to turn this around,'' Mr. Mann says.

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