Standing in front of his splendid Victorian above Tacoma's Commencement Bay, Jeff Stvrtecky speaks of his years spent in the middle of Los Angeles as if recalling a long-ago, passionate relationship that just couldn't last.
"There was a time when I loved L.A. so much . . . the culture, the fun, the sun. . . . I couldn't imagine being anywhere else," he said as the midmorning sun burned away the Puget Sound fog. "But you go through stages in life, and other things become more important."
Stvrtecky still loved Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, and still believed in its potential. But after seeing his neighbors loot stores as a gun battle raged in front of his house just off Western Avenue and Venice Boulevard, he no longer wanted to live with its mood swings. "Los Angeles had come back before, and I felt the city would come back [again after the riots]. I just didn't want to wait."
He and his companion, Jon Rake, moved in August 1993. Their home lingered on a depressed market until Stephen Wallis and Eileen Ehmann bought it and continued the journey.
Patience ran out for a lot of Angelenos in the 1990s. Even before the riots, Los Angeles residents were leaving the city by the thousands. Many moved to neighboring counties, lured by lower housing prices or the perceived safety of newer suburbs. Many others left the state entirely, adding to population booms in other parts of the West.
The number of Californians who left the state had begun exceeding those who moved in from other states by 1991. The largest number of California transplants moved to Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado. The net outflow of Californians, measured by the Department of Motor Vehicles, lasted until 1997.
Because so many moved away, with so many individual reasons, the migration cannot be pegged to a single event or motive. Los Angeles took a series of hard blows in the space of just a few years: a faltering economy and real estate market, racial tensions highlighted by the riots and natural disasters such as the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Stvrtecky, a music conductor, and Rake, a choreographer, had already been thinking of moving to Tacoma, Wash., before the riots. They owned a house there that they rented out, and had dreams of starting a musical theater company. A bed-and-breakfast inn they had run out of their house in L.A.'s historic West Adams district had gone out of business. They were gradually scaling back their commitments to L.A., but figured they could stay years longer.
A Bullet Pierces Feeling of Security
They had moved to West Adams in 1985, part of a wave of younger couples and families. The newcomers often bought the homes of departing seniors or neglected houses that had been occupied by renters. They lovingly restored the early 20th century houses, which they often bought at low prices, and bonded through neighborhood beautification work. They prided themselves as multiracial urban pioneers just two miles from downtown.
The riots reached them with a warning on April 29, 1992. They had been watching television news in their living room, and knew rioters were headed north, toward them. Then someone ran down their street and announced the appliance store at their corner would be looted.
The shooting started moments later. The appliance store's owner and a group of young men Stvrtecky and Rake knew to be local gang members were firing at each other. The gang members positioned themselves in front of Stvrtecky's house, some of them firing from the porch.
Rake was on the living room floor calling 911 when a bullet hit him.
The shot passed through the house's siding, a stud and an overstuffed chair before ricocheting in the living room, retaining only enough energy to bounce off Rake's chest. The bullet didn't even break his skin. "I actually thought it would be kind of a fun thing to talk about."
More than the gunshots and fires, what horrified the pair was what they began to see out of their living room window: their neighbors returning from looting.
"The devil took over that day," Rake said. "Even those we took to be good people were swept up in it." The sight of people they knew running home with shoes and televisions taken from nearby stores terrified them. Good people had gone bad. Where were the police? Where would it stop?
Seeing Neighbors in a Different Light
"The most fearful moment of my life," Stvrtecky said--including living through last Sept. 11 while visiting Manhattan. Those villains were strangers. These were people they knew and trusted, in some cases using trucks or dollies to move their loot.
"The appliance store was empty in 15 or 20 minutes. They were so well organized," Stvrtecky said. "People lost their businesses to our own neighbors."
Stvrtecky became hysterical, saying "We're going to die!" over and over. "I had to slap him," Rake recalled.