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Cover Story

Searching for a Legacy

10 Years After the L.A. Riots, Peter H. King Walks Vermont Avenue and Discovers Scars, Memories and Signs of Healing

April 21, 2002|PETER H. KING

Finally she slid open a little window. Communication improved. Tenenbaum and her husband had emigrated from Russia in 1974. They bought the pawnshop nine years later. The neighborhood, she said, had gone downhill. Business was off. There was not much stock on the shelves: used blue jeans, a few electric guitars, a tribal mask, a pair of shoulder pads, and, inside locked glass cases, watches and jewelry.

Some of the jewelry, she said, had been pawned 15 years ago by customers: "They are scared to come into this area," she said, "because it was robbed in the riot. That is why we stay here. We cannot take property away and close the store. They sue us if we do. And they cannot come and take it out, because they are too scared."

She locked herself back inside her wall of plexiglass. I gave a nod to the two security cameras and moved for the door. The alarm gave me one last whoop as I headed down the sidewalk.

To walk across Los Angeles can be an exhilarating experience.

What might seem a modest day hike in the woods becomes, when conducted on city sidewalks--cutting under freeways, crossing unmarked boundaries into unfamiliar neighborhoods--an excursion. The eye catches details missed from a car, graffiti sliced into the trunk of a palm tree, a well-manicured garden squeezed behind ramshackle houses. At one point, I passed under a ficus tree shimmering from the weight of unseen, but wildly shrieking, birds. At another I stopped to watch a little girl in a powder-blue sweatsuit and pigtails roll by on skates, licking an ice cream cone. Her sweatshirt identified her as "Angel." Down the same sidewalk less than a minute later trudged a bearded wanderer, shoeless, skin burned by the sun, clothes plastered with grease and waste, leaving in his wake a trail of stench that turned up noses at 50 paces.

Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Latasha Harlins: An article in today's issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine ("A Walk Down Vermont Avenue") incorrectly identifies Latasha Harlins as a shoplifter. The 15-year-old was shot and killed by a Los Angeles merchant following a scuffle that began when she was accused of shoplifting a bottle of orange juice.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 5, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Walk Down Vermont Avenue" (April 21) incorrectly identified Latasha Harlins as a shoplifter. The 15-year-old was shot and killed by a Los Angeles merchant following a scuffle that began when she was accused of shoplifting a bottle of orange juice.

At a bus stop near Florence and Vermont, I was panhandled by a toothless woman in an American flag T-shirt. She unleashed for my benefit a wide-ranging discourse on abusive husbands, Beverly Hills housekeeping and gunplay. With each new theme she demanded another dollar, and she punctuated each demand with a stout punch to my shoulder.

As I moved through the middle passages of my route, bisecting the city's most heavily mixed neighborhoods, I started taking note of the cacophony of signage: Filipino Chinese Delicatessan . . . Fiesta Grill . . . Tom's Hamburgers . . . Horizon Church Ministries (Where Heaven and Earth Meet) . . . City of Stars Collision Center . . . In Sung Acupuncture . . . Rosa de Sharon Liberia Christiano . . . H.O.T. Thai . . . Koryo Bakery . . . Italle Optometric Center . . . Makkah Meats . . .

There was a poetry to these signs. They seemed so very much Los Angeles. Before the riot, it had been popular, especially among L.A.'s leaders, to celebrate this mix, to sing rhapsodies to the polyglot wonders on display across the metropolis. The riot stopped the singing. As a Times headline so neatly summarized at the time: "View of Model Multiethnic City Vanishes in Smoke."

While the composition of looters and arsonists was certainly diverse, nobody found in this cause for celebration. There would be no fancy phrase-making about diversity of dissent. A web of racial and ethnic fault lines had been exposed. And in the aftermath came backlash. No great feat of political genius was required to connect the dots between the upheavals of 1992 and the subsequent campaigns to boot undocumented immigrants from public schools and hospitals, to strip away affirmative action, to reject bilingual education.

People I spoke with along Vermont tended to bring a certain bluntness to discussions of racial matters. "Can I tell you what I saw?" began a riot witness who identified himself as part Chinese, part Filipino. "Where I was it was mostly Hispanic people causing the trouble, people from Central America."

A bank janitor, originally from Mexico, offered this: "Everything has changed for the worse. This used to be a nice and quiet neighborhood. Now so many people are coming here from everywhere, from all over the world; they don't want to choose the American Way." And an immigrant from the former Soviet Armenia complained: "The neighborhood has gotten worse since the riot. The population has changed. Before it was mostly white and Asian Pacific people. Now it is more Mexican and African American people."

Ji Suh, the 49-year-old general manager of the car lot, described how the fury African Americans unleashed on Korean immigrants during the riot changed him: "I lived here for 30 years, and for a long time I don't care what others like or do. I work and I survive. I achieve my goal. I thought that was enough. But that's not how it is is done here. This is the United States of America. This is the melting pot. We have to reach out to other communities. We have got to accept each other."

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