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South L.A.'s growing pain

Plans to revive the area after the 1992 riots have been largely unfulfilled.

April 27, 2007|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years after the 1992 riots, South Los Angeles has seen dramatic population shifts -- but frustratingly little economic progress.

Latinos are a growing presence in a community that was once the center of African American life. Many middle-class black and Latino families have moved out of the area for better schools and safer streets. Those remaining are disproportionately poorer and have fewer job skills.

New grocery stores have opened since the riots -- a longtime goal of residents and activists. Yet the area still suffers the region's highest unemployment and underemployment rates.

By almost any economic measure, South Los Angeles has lost ground compared with the city and county. The area, bordered roughly by the Santa Monica and Century freeways between Alameda Boulevard and west to the city limits, grew jobs by only 0.4% from 1993 to 2005, versus 24.6% growth for L.A. County as a whole, according to the state Employment Development Department. The area's average wage grew 21.3% in that period, versus 47.3% for the county.

Grandiose plans to revive the community as a hub for manufacturing and other service-sector industries are largely unrealized. With so few jobs in the area, many residents commute to low-paying service jobs as maids in airport-area hotels, as day laborers on the Westside or as security guards.

Fourteen percent of the city's labor force now lives in South Los Angeles, but only 3% of jobs in the formal economy are located there, said Dan Flaming, president of the Los Angeles-based Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based research group. Many others work in the informal "underground" economy, he said, for employers that don't offer benefits or workers' compensation.

The lack of opportunities in the area prompted Raul Gaona, 32, to commute to Van Nuys for a job with a fencing company.

South Los Angeles resident Gregory Talley, a 48-year-old security guard who works the graveyard shift at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, said "It's hard to get a good job, everybody's downsizing."

There are some positives. Local activists credit Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with renewing interest in the area by sparking construction of several shopping centers and housing units. They also point to more projects in the pipeline. Organizers of a job fair slated for today, part of a planned "Weekend of Peace," hope the event draws attention to the community's labor pool.

Area activists say that lifting a community long mired in poverty and urban blight depends on improved education, housing and business development.

"The Rebuild L.A. claim that the private sector can do it turned out to be hollow," said Robert Gottlieb, who teaches urban policy at Occidental College, referring to the nonprofit organization formed after the riots to spearhead economic development. "We need to have a much more aggressive role in developing jobs, including public-private partnerships and new industry incubators."

Manufacturing firms that paid middle-class salaries, once the area's backbone, have largely disappeared in South L.A. as they have from other cities.

And although some grocery chains have opened new stores in recent years -- including Food 4 Less and Gigante -- other grocery chains and retailers have shut their doors.

Moreover, new grocery clerks earn lower wages than they did before the 2003 Southern California supermarket strike and lockout that involved Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs. And at Food 4 Less, which has opened 11 stores in South Los Angeles since 1992, shoppers bag their own groceries, eliminating those jobs at the checkout counter.

The area now includes stores from Starbucks Corp., Walgreen Co. and other retailers, but still harbors too many liquor stores, abandoned lots and boarded-up buildings, residents complain.

Although the same pattern of slow inner-city job growth has occurred in other major cities, demographic shifts and long-standing residential segregation in Los Angeles have accelerated the decline of poor neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles, according to a study last year by the California Budget Project, a Sacramento-based nonprofit research group.

Many middle-class African American and Latino families have moved to such places as Baldwin Hills, the Inland Empire and Lancaster. From 1990 to 2000, the African American population of San Bernardino County rose 34% and the number of Latino residents surged by 79%, according to census data.

Those who remain in South L.A. have less education and fewer job skills, Flaming said. Forty-five percent of adults in the community do not have high school diplomas, and 37% of those with jobs are considered to be among the state's working poor, he said.

And more of the residents are Latino. Although experts disagree on the exact numbers, South L.A.'s Latino population has grown dramatically since the 1992 riots, hitting 54% by 2000 versus 38% for African Americans, according to the Los Angeles City Planning Department.

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