The Los Angeles riots dared this nation to do better. The fires challenged government, business and private citizens to stop ignoring poor, isolated inner cities.
The immediate response was full of promise. President Bush and congressional leaders pledged substantial aid for the cities with incentives that would encourage businesses to create jobs in poor neighborhoods. Those billions--and those new jobs--never materialized because of gridlocked Washington politics.
Government has failed. Thankfully, corporate America has responded. More than 500 businesses from the United States, Europe and Japan have developed plans--through Rebuild L. A.--to invest $1 billion in depressed neighborhoods in this region. The riots--and the determined prodding of Peter V. Ueberroth, a co-chairman of RLA--have persuaded corporate America to return to inner cities.
Ueberroth knew the players, the CEOs, from his tenure as baseball commissioner and head of Los Angeles' successful 1984 Olympics. His crucial access to business leaders and his persuasive sales pitch--investing in inner cities--appear to have reaped substantial rewards despite a grim economic climate.
Ueberroth had plenty of help from the large Rebuild L.A. board and the 800 volunteers who sit on RLA task forces. They prove that the people of Los Angeles can work together amid sometimes paralyzing racial, ethnic, economic and geographic divisions.
That measure of harmony took a bit of time to accomplish, of course. The announcement of $1 billion in potential investments occurred six months after the riots. Many had wondered impatiently if Ueberroth and RLA had failed to capitalize on the momentum and goodwill in the immediate aftermath of the riots. The results, which seem to prove otherwise, should disarm sincere critics and quiet would-be obstructionists.
Ueberroth's leadership is crucial. He must stay until the job is done. The $1 billion, although significant, is merely a down payment on the creation of vibrant, integrated communities that offer access to jobs and services. Private corporations alone, however, cannot do a job that is estimated to cost $6 billion. Government must act, too. The sooner the better.
Washington must craft a promising vision for high-poverty neighborhoods, and "fast-track" a serious urban aid bill that provides dollars and incentives. Private investment could be leveraged repeatedly if government rewarded businesses for making sustained investments, hiring employees from within a 10-block radius of the plant or office, providing training and transportation subsidies and making work worth more than welfare.
To encourage greater investment, the federal government also should promote public safety by supporting urban police forces and toughening community investment requirements to encourage greater commercial and residential lending. In that regard, the creation of a $10-million multi-bank community development corporation, as announced on Friday, will certainly help small businesses. Tougher federal civil rights laws would encourage integration in the workplace.
Unemployment is traditionally high in very poor neighborhoods because of the exodus from central cities after an earlier wave of urban unrest in the 1960s. Most businesses wrote off inner-city neighborhoods for decades, citing additional expenses due to high insurance costs, rampant crime, an undereducated work force and an impoverished clientele. Those reasons, however rational, redlined large sections of Los Angeles. Poor neighborhoods became economic deserts, barren of jobs, stores, banks and many other services.
Because of huge federal budget deficits, Washington cannot work alone. State and local governments also must craft a comprehensive plan to rejuvenate high-poverty neighborhoods. Community organizations also must continue to encourage economic development. The Los Angeles riots seared into the national consciousness much of what is wrong with urban America. RLA can succeed, with the help of government and community groups, in stimulating steady growth in poor neighborhoods. The work of Peter Ueberroth and his RLA team is simply invaluable--and possibly historic.