America's City of Tomorrow Shaken - Still - by Past


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.

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.

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.

"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."

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