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Riots claimed 200 liquor stores, but South L.A. still suffers

Three days of violence accomplished what years of protests could not against the pockets of intoxication and crime. Some lots remain vacant and others have been reborn as businesses, but problems linger.

April 27, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Numero Uno Market on Figueroa Street stands on the site of Empire Liquor, where Latasha Harlins was killed by Soon Ja Du two weeks after the Rodney King beating.
Numero Uno Market on Figueroa Street stands on the site of Empire Liquor,… (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles…)

There used to be a liquor store next to Frances Fikes' church on Normandie Avenue in South Los Angeles.

But the store burned down 20 years ago, on the first night of the riots.

"I didn't do it," she said bluntly, without a hint of joking in her voice. "But I'm happy it's gone. I was asleep. It was 3 a.m. when it burned. "

I get the feeling that Mrs. Fikes could have done it, if she weren't such a good Christian woman.

"It was a terrible place. Ter-ri-ble!" she said, indignant at the memory.

The men who hung around the store would urinate on the sidewalk and barge into the sanctuary during worship.

"They'd ask for money. We would offer them food, but that wasn't what they wanted."

One morning after Sunday school, with children crowding the candy aisle, the store owner leaped over the counter with a gun and fired at a shoplifter.

"It was frightening," Mrs. Fikes said. "We suffered. We didn't know what to do."

The riots took care of it for them.

The owner cleared the rubble, fenced off the spot and let the church use it as a parking lot. When he applied to rebuild, vanloads of churchgoers protested and the city denied his permit.

Today, that corner is home to a tidy apartment building, ringed by well-tended rosebushes and a sturdy wrought-iron fence.

It's an awkward thing to celebrate. But the riots accomplished in three days what years of protests could not: 200 liquor stores were wiped out, in a 51-square-mile swath of the city weighted down with more than 600.

The payoff was big: less crime, cleaner streets and fewer ugly scenes.

But controlling their numbers going forward will take more than a match and kerosene.


There are nearly 70,000 more people today in South Los Angeles than there were 20 years ago, census figures show. And liquor license records show 174 fewer liquor stores.

That's a tribute to the persistence and resilience of a long-suffering community.

Some stores call themselves mini-markets now. Picture windows have replaced cinder-block walls. The owners know better than to toss a customer's change across the counter. They count it out politely instead, from behind bulletproof barriers.

They're not the shops that the suburbs know as a pit stop on the way home from work.

They sell six-packs of beer, one can at a time, and charge 50 cents for a "loosie," a single cigarette.

At their worst, they're a reflection of what's wrong in South Los Angeles: high prices, poor service; a magnet for addicts and dealers.

At their most benign, they're impromptu gathering spots in neighborhoods long on economic woe and short on markets and parks — in communities where the only open space might be a fenced-off, riot-ravaged lot.

The liquor stores were flashpoints for trouble long before Rodney King, and before teenager Latasha Harlins was shot to death by a Korean store owner two weeks after King's beating. Soon Ja Du was convicted by a jury of manslaughter, but kept out of jail by a sympathetic judge.

The riots were considered, in some neighborhoods, a chance to settle the score. Some black-owned stores were left untouched, while those run by Koreans were torched.

Before the riots, 45% of the liquor stores in South L.A. were operated by Koreans, according to a Times analysis of owners' names. Now only about one-third (158) are Korean.

But the proliferation of liquor stores — not the ethnicity of owners — is what drags the community down.

"Drugs, prostitution, violence — the liquor store was the place where all that converged," said Joanne Kim, a leader of the South Los Angeles Community Coalition, which is heading the fight to close them.

Even now, the stores seem to be on every corner, thriving at the intersection of need and disorder.

A mother pushing a baby stroller, shopping for milk, would line up at the liquor store counter alongside an addict buying a glass pipe for the rock of crack that he purchased from a dealer in the parking lot.

Outside, customers would drink and use drugs openly. Some sidewalks had folding chairs, even couches. There were fights and robberies. Prostitutes competed for customers.

For neighbors, the scene was embarrassing.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the Community Coalition's chief executive, grew up near 110th Street and Normandie Avenue, with a liquor store on his street corner. As a kid, he couldn't shop there after 3 p.m. "because by then everybody who'd been there drinking would be inebriated," he recalled.

"If we were going to have guests and they were going to arrive after that time, my parents would give directions that would take them down another street … rather than let them see that corner."


Until the riots, Warren Jones was one of those inebriated liquor store louts. He lived next door to Mrs. Fikes' church and passed his days at the corner store.

He watched it burn that night. A liquor store at the other end of the block burned too; it's been replaced by a doughnut shop.

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