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LEGACY OF THE RIOTS: 1992 - 2002

Four Corners Tell South L.A. Tale

Recovery: Poverty and blight still haunt key intersections, but bright spots in the business landscape also are found.

April 23, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade after the Los Angeles riots, increasing but still uneven signs of economic rebirth are scattered throughout South-Central Los Angeles.

On a corner once home to a rundown strip mall and a shuttered industrial plant, residents pack a spotless Starbucks coffee shop to socialize over $3 lattes.

Big-name developers are negotiating deals to transform other corner lots into shopping centers, finally convinced there is money to be made serving hundreds of thousands of customers who have paltry shopping options. Local nonprofits have built dozens of new subsidized housing projects.

The parts of South Los Angeles that were most vibrant before the riots have shown clear improvement: To the west of South-Central, the Crenshaw district's Leimert Park is buzzing with new business, and construction is evident in the northern neighborhoods of West Adams and University Park. Banks have stepped up small-business and mortgage lending.

But to a far greater degree than in other areas touched by three days of burning and looting in 1992--Mid-Wilshire, Pico-Union, Compton and Long Beach among them--poverty and blight persist at the riot's epicenter in South-Central.

It was here that post-riot talk of recovery focused. City leaders formed a corporate-led organization to take on the task. But Rebuild LA--or RLA, as it came to be known--contended that reversing decades of stagnation would require more than rebuilding. Neglected neighborhoods needed more than 74,000 new jobs and $6 billion in investment, an early analysis found.

What came to pass fell far short of that.

When RLA disbanded five years ago, it reported that $389 million in corporate investments had been made, although millions of dollars were spent outside the riot-torn neighborhoods.

The riots coincided with a deep recession, and few job-creating initiatives were undertaken. But even as the overall economy rebounded--ushering in the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history--South Los Angeles suffered. From 1992 to 1999, the area lost more than 55,000 jobs--more than any other part of the city, according to the Economic Roundtable, a public policy research group. Average wages too dropped in relation to the county average.

Today, of about 600 properties in the city that were destroyed or seriously damaged, more than a fifth still have not been rebuilt--almost all of them in South-Central. Some double as used-car lots, illegal swap meets or recycling yards. Others host carnivals a few times a year. But many sit unused, littered with trash that collects against the chain-link fences that surround them.

More national retailers now view dense but poor neighborhoods as opportunities. That has spurred interest from big developers, which are bringing crucial financing to projects that still overwhelmingly depend on public subsidies. Scattered government and community programs have helped some small businesses and spurred construction of subsidized housing, and political backing has helped push some projects through.

But politicking just as often has held things back. Large-scale commercial development remains costly. Many entrepreneurs and residents survive on the margins of solvency.

"You've got more part-time jobs, more lower-wage jobs," said Marva Smith Battle-Bey of the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp. "We got a few more fast-food restaurants, but very little has changed."

Four major intersections reflect the variety of reasons for the mixed recovery of South-Central.

Western and Slauson: Development Milestone

For five years, Aishia Rogers traveled the three blocks from her house to her job at Pic 'N' Save with a growing sense of dread.

With no security guards, shoplifters strolled out the door without hiding their take. Last year, Rogers was robbed at gunpoint twice in two weeks--by the same guy. At $7.50 an hour, her job as an assistant manager hardly seemed worth the risk.

Today she works just across the street. In many ways the neighborhood is unchanged: The Pic 'N' Save remains, along with the corner liquor store and the bustling nearby swap meet.

But Rogers feels a world of difference. The 9-month-old Chesterfield Square shopping center, where she earns $9.50 an hour as a Home Depot bookkeeper, stands as South-Central's brightest development success.

The center rose from the site of a shuttered dairy plant in three years, unusually fast for a project here. It is packed with national retailers that long avoided South-Central. The center brings quality services and about 600 desperately needed jobs to the area, and its success could have a ripple effect on surrounding neighborhoods.

This corner escaped immediate damage in 1992, but there was little to destroy. It had been abandoned by industry, whose legacy remains in contaminated soil and obsolete brick buildings.

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