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L.A. One Year Ago Today: City's Future, or Its Past?

What Next for Los Angeles / One in a series

April 29, 1993

"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all tried to lie out of that but life won't let us."

The playwright Eugene O'Neill, who wrote about a tension-ridden family and the power of illusion, could have been speaking of Los Angeles. The intertwining of the past, present and future is the challenge--and the hope--for Los Angeles one year after the nation's worst urban riots of the 20th Century.

For the past of Los Angeles is far more than the fiery horror of burned lives and charred buildings and smothered dreams. The past of Los Angeles was mostly optimism unfettered, so complete that it beckoned people from every walk of life to pull up stakes and come here, to a city that by natural law should be a desert. The past of Los Angeles was that it was the place to come precisely because your past didn't matter. That's the present too.

Look who's running for mayor of this city. A 62-year-old venture capitalist is in a close race with a 41-year-old grandson of a Chinese laundryman. Both want to replace a grandson of African-American slaves and the son of a Texas sharecropper.

Now none of this makes Los Angeles some multicultural paradise. But it makes it more than just a place where chaos and pain exploded a year ago, and 27 years before that. It makes it a whole lot more.

THE PAST: But there's no denying that the unrest of last year has been permanently seared into the city's consciousness.

The urban explosion, sparked by the acquittals of four white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney G. King exposed crater-like class divisions between rich and poor. The rainbow rebellion also exposed deep racial and ethnic tensions that had long existed--and a leadership vacuum at City Hall.

THE PRESENT: The city, and the nation, heaved a sigh of collective relief nearly two weeks ago when a jury convicted two of the four officers on trial for violating King's civil rights. Finally, there was a verdict that many reasonable people agreed reflected the appalling reality of what that videotape showed.

But gradually, attention is being turned toward another trial this summer, that of three black men on trial for the beating of white trucker Reginald O. Denny. Already some fear that the city has merely dodged one bullet, and that the upcoming trial could reignite violence.

That's giving far too little credit to Los Angeles. It suggests that Angelenos are powerless, hostage to events. We don't buy that fatalistic argument. Nor should anyone else.

One positive aspect of the wake-up call that Los Angeles received last year is that community and grass-roots groups were reinvigorated by necessity. The work done by El Rescate, the Korean American Merchants Assn., Concerned Citizens of South Central was always important--but all the more so during a time when the city needed cool, committed leadership. These leaders understand that L.A. cannot thrive as separate city-states determined by race, ethnicity and class. Thus Edward Chang, a Korean-American professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, has written a book about African-American history, for a Korean audience, in the Korean language. South-Central-based organizations joined hands last weekend with Westside-based environmental groups to clean up parts of South-Central. And another nonprofit, L.A. Works, sent 1,000 volunteers Saturday to sites from South-Central to the San Fernando Valley for public service projects, painting playground equipment, fixing fences. For some, it was their first time to go across town. When people meet and become real to each other, not media images, fear based on stereotypes can break down.

THE FUTURE: The Rebuild L.A. organization says that to date there have been more than $500 million in new investments and the creation of several thousand jobs. But Peter V. Ueberroth and his RLA team need help and direction from an activist mayor and City Council. L.A. also needs energetic help from the White House. President Clinton must combine compromise with common sense to funnel federal assistance to Los Angeles and other cities. Jobs are the best balm for poverty.

In the aftermath of the riots, Los Angeles has become a metaphor for all that ails American cities. But with the help of government, corporations and private individuals, Los Angeles can rise from those ashes to become a national model of all that is right in urban America. Let's remember that, as historian Kevin Starr put it, the multi racial, multi ethnic, multi- linguistic Los Angeles is not just an updated version of New York at the turn of the century. L.A, he says, is a "brand new experiment in human culture." As such, the nation has a huge stake in L.A.'s present, for it is America's future.

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