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Black-Owned Businesses Pay a Heavy Price


Six days after rioters set fire to Broadway Federal Savings and Loan's headquarters on South Broadway at 45th Street, the charred remains of the blue stone building still gushed plumes of smoke.

Paul Hudson, the 45-year-old thrift's president, sat in one of the firm's branch offices trying to make sense of the disaster that struck the business his family had run in South Los Angeles for three generations.

The Broadway Federal headquarters, two years older than Hudson, was among a still-untold number of black-owned and operated institutions that were burned last week in the riots that swept across the city.

They were banks and barbershops, cultural and social service organizations and offices of black politicians. More than just places of commerce or providers of services, some were historical landmarks that chronicled the passage of blacks through Los Angeles in the last half-century.

"I'm assuming (the arsonists) didn't know what it was and thought they were striking at a federal government institution," said Hudson, who succeeded his father as president in March. "I got to believe they didn't know. It's not unusual for teen-agers not to be plugged into a sense of history."

Zenora Steele consoled herself with the belief that outsiders torched her family's 31-year-old Terry's Interiors, the largest black-owned furniture store in the city. "The neighborhood knew it was a black-owned business," she said about the Vermont Avenue store founded by her husband, Terry. "That's why we know it wasn't someone from the neighborhood."

The family watched the business burn on television during the first day of the riots from the emergency room of Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, where Terry Steele had been admitted hours earlier for a severe asthma attack.

At Vermont Avenue and 84th Street, trucks are still hauling away the ashes of a building owned by 100 Black Men, a 10-year-old service organization that has become a prominent symbol of the post-civil rights era commitment of black professionals to community service.

The building's revenue supported the organization's scholarship, mentoring, tutoring and social programs. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had a field office in the building and it was recently renovated and expanded to accommodate 16 city departments in a mini-City Hall where district residents could obtain services.

The blaze that gutted Broadway Federal also destroyed the adjacent offices of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose 1990 victory kept a black in the congressional seat held for 28 years by Augustus Hawkins.

Gone, too, are the African Refugee Center on Crenshaw Boulevard in the Crenshaw Square shopping center and the nearby Ethiopian Community Center Outreach Services, the only facility of its kind in the area whose sole purpose is helping African immigrants with passports, medical care and government services.

"The irony I saw was that my neighbors were putting up signs that said 'black-owned,' but we didn't put up one," said Saba Hile Maskel, the center's director. "We have our logo, which is a map of Africa, outside the office, and we thought it would go without saying that we are black."

The list of casualties--businesses and services--remains incomplete. Black business organizations and community activists are tallying the hundreds of mostly small restaurants, construction companies, janitorial supply firms, dress shops, clothing stores, secretarial services, dry cleaners and photo shops that were ransacked and burned.

"The smoke hasn't cleared, and all the information hasn't gotten back to the chamber here," said Glen Hale, chairman of the 200-member African-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Los Angeles.

The news spread quickly through a shocked Los Angeles black business community about the destruction of Rod Davis Firestone on Crenshaw and 53rd Street. "The thing about Rod is he owned another Firestone in Culver City, and he sold it to concentrate in the black community. And now everything is gone," said Greogory Burks, vice president of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce.

Crenshaw Chamber member Ron Smothers, 48, saw four of his six Burger King restaurants damaged. None of his outlets burned, and Smothers said he has to reopen "and generate some money to pay these bills."

The Los Angeles-Long Beach area has more black-owned businesses than any metropolitan area other than New York City, according to 1987 U.S. Census Bureau data, the latest available. The New York City area's 28,063 firms had gross receipts of $1.2 billion, compared to receipts of $1.3 billion generated by the 23,932 firms in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area.

The dream of business ownership is a goal more African-Americans have begun to pursue in Los Angeles, with barely a week going by without word of another refugee from corporate America or academia coming back to the old neighborhood to set up shop.

Although many of those who lost their businesses vow to rebuild, the destruction has left deep and bitter pain.

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