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Searching for a Legacy

Cover Story

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

There was a lull the next morning, a Thursday, but in the afternoon the burning and looting resumed. In this second round, as a compilation of LAPD incident reports later would demonstrate, hot spots increasingly flared up in sectors north of the Santa Monica Freeway: This would be the riot of equal opportunity looting. By Friday the military troops began moving into town, and the winding down was on.

On this southern leg of my journey I heard for the first time mention of "the Reginald Denny Four" and Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old African American shoplifter who had been shot dead by a Korean merchant in 1991. The treatment of African Americans by the LAPD began to come up in every conversation.

FOR THE RECORD
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.

"We need more police out walking around on the streets," suggested 41-year-old Nicholas Bryant. "If all you see is a guy in a car shining a light in your face, you are not going to trust him. And he is not going to trust you."

The more people I met along Vermont the more I became cognizant of a heretofore unnoticed phenomenon of the riot: Nobody seems to have taken part in it. I did not talk to a single person who had anything to do with any looting, burning or even spirited rabble-rousing. Yes, many of them could provide fantastic, richly detailed accounts of the action--looters frying themselves on jewelry store trip wires, shootouts between gang members and shop owners, limbs severed in the stampede through a plate glass window. As for themselves, well . . . .

They had watched from "across the street."

Or they had been "out and around" the riot, but not in it.

Or they had been at home, "glued to the television."

An uncommon number of Angelenos, judging by my informal survey, were down in Orange County--"OC," as a panhandler at Vermont and 8th put it--on the days and nights in question.

Somebody, though, had been busy. Somebody, for instance, spirited away 132 pianos from Reed's Music, a venerable Los Angeles establishment at Vermont and 46th. For Jerome Bleeker, 80 years old at the time, this was the second riot he would endure since buying the store after World War II. In the Watts riots, he and his staff pushed a piano against the front door to keep back the crowd; only one organ was lost.

In 1992 the mob was more determined. Iron gates were twisted off hinges, plate glass windows knocked out. Still, how so many pianos--uprights, baby grands, every single one in stock except a grand piano that apparently couldn't be squeezed through the doors--remains a mystery of logistics.

Later stories circulated of pianos sailing along Vermont Avenue on dollies. Bleeker cannot confirm it: "I didn't stay around long enough to see." Early that first evening, police had informed him the crowd was moving north on Vermont: "We were warned they were pretty close, and we were advised to get out."

He returned the next day. Sheets of music were scattered about the floor. The walls were covered with painted epithets. Strangers milled about the store, picking through the ruins. Bleeker didn't attempt to shoo them away; he just stood and watched, bewildered by the scene.

His losses, however, were insured, and in time Bleeker was facing a difficult question: "Do we take the money and run?" He talked it over with his family and staff. They stayed. And now, a decade later, having reached the age of 90, Bleeker has decided he might take a whirl at the retirement life. The store is for sale, but attracting buyers has not been easy.

"They say, 'Oh, your business is in South Los Angeles. I don't want to come down there.' " He tries to reassure them, insisting that "it's no worse here in terms of hold-ups and break-ins and that sort of thing." Nevertheless, this native of New Jersey, who came to Los Angeles as a young man to play piano for the early cowboy movies, said he remains optimistic--not only about selling the store, but about the city as a whole. He has faith in the future. In the meantime, the iron gates that failed in 1992 have been replaced by solid-metal shields that roll down and lock tight.

Do these work better?

"Oh yeah," he said without hesitation. "They're the best."

It was late in the afternoon when I left Bleeker. Long shadows stretched across Vermont. The bright skies at the advent of my walk had yielded to a smoggy haze. As I was making a note to myself, I heard, yet again, a squeal of tires. A car was spinning wildly in the street. In another neighborhood, my first guess would have been movie shoot. This seemed more ominous.

The small station wagon came to a sideways halt in the middle of the street, blocking another vehicle. All movement on the street stopped. Other pedestrians drifted slowly into doorways and behind walls. I followed their lead. At last a woman climbed out of the driver's side. She was trembling. A passenger came around to console her.

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