National Guardsmen patrol near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Vermont… (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles…)
In 1997, Dominick Dunne wrote a book whose title has stuck with me, although not for the reasons Dunne intended when he crafted his gossipy novel about the O.J. Simpson case.
His title, "Another City, Not My Own," summed up how I had felt in 1992 when my own Los Angeles was suddenly a stranger to me.
To live in Los Angeles during the riots was like waking up and seeing your own room through a distorting lens. You recognized the place, but something didn't look right. That was La Brea Boulevard on TV, all right — but the shop windows were shattered. There was Venice Beach — but with National Guardsmen standing watch.
We Angelenos were used to seeing our city playing other parts on television and in film, but not to seeing it in the verite role as the burning heart of our own banana republic.
Toward the end of the first full day of rioting, I stood with my "Life & Times" colleagues behind the gates of KCET-TV. Across the street, the looters "shopped" Circuit City. A trio came out looking like the Three Bears — father with the big TV, mother with the portable, child with the CD player.
It's hard to loot a paid-up electric bill or to steal a bigger apartment, so looters took what was within reach, from a box of Tide to an aquarium or a dozen guns, all booty from the riots. (My late colleague George Ramos learned that some young Latino men who had gleefully looted the Sears store near downtown got home and were told by their parents to turn right around, young man, and take that back.)
In the riotous spring of 1992, the old L.A. stereotypes got taken out for another spin. Hell in paradise, death in the sunlit promised land.
I found myself aboard a bus with the Beltway press corps following President George H.W. Bush on his visit here. I saw them scribbling, and I saw through the windows what they were writing about: It was May, and the jacarandas were blooming, and the contrast, "charred streets framed by lilac cascades of flowers" was exactly what I would have written. But this was my wounded city, and the lovely glibness of it wounded me.
In the movies, here's where there would be a dissolve into the words "present day."
Where have 20 years of soul-searching and good intentions gotten us? We scared ourselves in '92, but into what?
Into reforming the city's police department and forging a new and far-improved relationship between the police and the people they policed most intensely. Into rewriting the city's charter, its constitution.
In 1992, we shamed ourselves into discovering ourselves, or rather, what we hadn't known about ourselves. I felt, as I wrote then, not so much fearful of this revealed L.A. as inadequate.
There was, for one, the complex relationship of Korean shop owners and black neighborhoods. The rest of the city learned about it from the videotaped fatal shooting of a black girl named Latasha Harlins by a Korean shop owner. That happened a couple of weeks after the videotaped LAPD beating of Rodney King. Had none of us been connecting the dots, except the people who were the dots?
Fewer African Americans live here now than in 1992. Many have followed the same suburban diaspora that white Angelenos traveled decades earlier. And a Loyola Marymount survey finds that Angelenos don't believe the city is the social tinderbox it once was, in spite of a wealth gap only a freeway's ride distant.
Of course L.A. has changed. That's what we do. We build and tear down and rebuild and glory in the forgetting.
Not quite two years after the riots, nature did some tearing down for us. The Northridge earthquake gave L.A. a chance for unity without blame, for civic effort without civic friction.
For a time, that quake-shattered stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway, near the very neighborhoods that had been sacked in 1992, had the salutary effect of forcing commuters off the freeway and onto surface streets in neighborhoods they might never have seen otherwise, and what do you know — there were pleasant little houses and stubborn little storefronts in those parts of town, too.
We never were the Hollywood version of Los Angeles, but in the spring of 1992, we learned, at a cost we are still paying, that we didn't want to be the Los Angeles we were seeing on the news, night after night. That other city, not our own.
Patt Morrison is a Times columnist.