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Fading memories at Florence and Normandie

Twenty years ago, the intersection was ground zero. Many of the neighbors are gone, and those who remain are tired of harping on the past. 'This is a different place now,' says a liquor store owner, pointing to the graffiti-free walls outside. But history is a tough thing to escape.

April 29, 2012|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times

Just a mention of the word throws off James Oh, as if you've come looking for someone who moved out long ago.

"Riots here?" he says, pointing to his store, Tom's Liquor. "No, no. Riots long, long time ago."

Today, the shelves are neatly stocked, the floors are sparkling clean and marigold daisies blossom in the sun a few feet from his door. On the walls outside: "No graffiti at all," he says proudly.

Twenty years ago today, when Oh was in Germany clearing minefields for the Army, one of the nation's worst riots exploded in Los Angeles. Tom's Liquor, at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, was ground zero. Its looted beer and malt liquor fueled outrage at the intersection where white truck driver Reginald Denny was infamously beaten.

The youths who now dash in and out of the green-roofed building for chips and sodas bear only the faintest connection to those days. And many of the neighbors who lived through the violence have moved out or died or simply don't care to keep harping about the past.

But history's a tough thing to escape at Florence and Normandie.

Every April, as surely as the faithful flock to church for Easter, TV cameras descend on this corner to remind the world about the time when buildings burned, more than 50 people died and thousands were injured.

On a recent day outside Tom's, a woman known to all as Lil' Momma had had enough with the attention. She grabbed a reporter's notebook and ran off with it. Angrily, she raised a fist toward the intersection:

"Florence and Normandie, Florence and Normandie! What about Florence and Normandie? When are y'all just gonna drop it and leave us the hell alone?"


Oh knew little about Tom's Liquor when he and a few Korean investors took over two years ago.

He had heard only vaguely about the Rodney King beating, the police trial and the riots; about the previous Asian owners, whose relationship with the black clientele had always been, at best, lukewarm.

But if anyone tried to warn Oh with specifics, he didn't care to hear them.

"I don't focus on past," he says from behind the counter. "This is a different place now, and I am different person."

He installed bright lights to make the store seem more open. He filled shelves with family-friendly products, such as baby bottles, diapers and detergent. And by the register, for everyone to see, he put a framed portrait of himself, smiling big in his decorated Army uniform.

"I tell everybody who comes in here, 'Bring it on!'" the 62-year-old says, at ease in his new uniform: long camouflage shorts, a T-shirt and tennis shoes. "I trust my customers. I don't stare at them when they shop. I don't look at their clothes or where they have their hands. I don't argue if they don't have exact change. I just say, 'OK, you pay me next time, OK?' and I smile."

The respect he's earned shows as women flash him grins and men pat him on the back. They greet him with a loud 'Hey, Sarge!" or a "How you doin', Bring It On!"

"How you doin', homie?" Oh hollers back.

Despite the good vibes, people sometimes snap.

So Oh and his crew ring up purchases from behind a bullet-proof screen. At the entrance, a security guard stands by, Mace strapped to his belt. And on the graffiti-free walls outside, sign after sign warns that the premises are monitored by cameras and police.


Senior Lead Officer Martin Martinez swings by regularly as he cruises the streets of the LAPD's 77th Division.

The veteran of 26 years was on duty the night the riots began; he helped rescue a pregnant woman who was dragged from her car and stabbed in front of her husband.

He's seen the area go from 73% black to more than half Latino in the last two decades.

Stores catering to Central Americans stretch for miles down Florence: Rosa's Party Supply, Hilda's Beauty Salon, Don Panchos 99 Cent.

At the Auto Zone on the corner, a mix of blacks and Latinos shop, but it's Latinos who run the registers.

Children grow up on the same playground, but they go to separate day cares, separate hair salons and separate churches.

"Mostly, people are very tolerant of each other," Martinez says.

When they do clash, he says it has little to do with race.

"It's more about the language barrier or nuisances like illegal vending on the streets."

When Maria Soto, 60, moved into the neighborhood 14 years ago, she learned the best thing she could do was mind her business.

"No matter what I see, no matter what I hear, I don't get involved," the Salvadoran immigrant says.

The 11 square miles Martinez patrols are full of contrasts:

Homicides and drive-bys have dropped dramatically, but danger still fills his radio airwaves: Nine shots fired from a rooftop at 83rd and Wadsworth. People running. Fifteen shots heard near 75th. Man fled scene.

The local Boys and Girls Club has quadrupled in size, offering 300 kids each day a friendly space to play and do their homework. Still, census figures show less than half the neighborhood makes it out of high school.

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