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The Los Angeles Riots after 25 Years

Morris Newman on
May 2, 2017

It was a warm day with very little breeze. Visible to the south, east, and west, motionless smoke columns served as precise geographic markers of the buildings that had been torched so far.

The cops were nowhere. As white gentrifiers in West Adams, we were at the mercy of any neighbor who might want to settle a score, such as the guys who lived in the gang house down the block. My street of early-1900s Craftsman houses was as eerily tranquil as an Edward Hopper painting. The party was elsewhere: three short blocks to the east, buildings were ablaze on all four corners of the intersection of Western and Washington boulevards. A mile to the north, in Koreatown and the Wilshire District, storeowners perched on rooftops with rifles to ward off arsonists and looters.

(As it turned out, the gang viewed us part of their turf to protect, as the gang leader told me a few days later in a friendly conversation. In spite of myself, I felt grateful.)

Before they ended, the Los Angeles riots extended from South Central all the way to the Hollywood Hills to the north. How did the unrest become so widespread? L.A. is an automobile city, and the unrest was literally a riot on wheels. Much of South Los Angeles is organized around endless north-south streets, like Western, Vermont, and La Brea, that span the 20-mile distance between downtown and the beach cities. Who started the fires? It’s unclear whether they were lit by locals inspired by news reports, or perhaps a small number of people, sitting in the back seats of cars and tossing incendiaries out the rear window, block by block, as their drivers headed north to Hollywood.

In the first hours, I was determined not to leave my house. Some of my reporter friends were actually cruising the streets in search of interviews and photo ops, despite a police curfew. When a cloud of acrid smoke settled on our house, it was time to go. The family of four, a large white dog, and a Selmer saxophone piled into the car to join the exodus to Sherman Oaks, behind the protective barrier of the Santa Monica Mountains.

In the end, the five-day riot left 50 people dead. It destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 buildings, at an estimated cost of a $1 billion. About a year later, some new commercial buildings, in candy colors and fashionable zig-zag angles, came to my neighborhood to replace the nondescript strip malls burned. In my opinion, they were not an improvement, even though the bar was pretty low.

***

In the days immediately after the riots, some people felt that Los Angeles needed fresh leadership and ideas. Their impulse was to privatize the project of community redevelopment. This belief may been particularly strong in Los Angeles, where government is perceived to be weak and business to be resolute and wise.

To head this ad hoc committee of civic repair, organizers chose Peter Ueberroth, a Republican resident of Orange County. Ueberroth, who had organized the successful 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, was “a guy who knows how to get things done.”

No sooner had Rebuild LA formed than it ran into a problem: How would this city-building be done, exactly? What projects should they undertake? Based on what policy? No one ever figured it out.

Despite good intentions and some nice gestures, Rebuild LA quickly turned into one more poverty agency in search of projects, “partners” and funding, and companies that had pledged either money or initiatives seemed to shrivel up.

More action, arguably, came from the city’s official civic-improvement arm, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (LA/CRA.). The agency gained great power in the Bradley years. It built some projects and attracted developers with free land and expedited financing, among other benefits.

CRA created new project areas, including one centered on the riot-damaged corner of Vermont and Manchester. The agency supported commercial ventures like Magic Johnson’s 12-screen multiplex at the Crenshaw Mall, the agency’s attempt to give South Central a real mall a few years priors to the riots. Another attempt at a shopping center, this time a grandiose effort called Vermont Gardens, which promised a cultural performance space in its center, started construction in 1995 but stalled out a year later. The agency helped build a number of low-income housing complexes, although projects that are instantly identifiable as affordable housing tend to stigmatize their neighborhoods.

Momentum to repair the city faded when the sense of crisis diminished.

When the Northridge earthquake hit two years later, followed by the immensely entertaining O.J. Simpson murder trial, Angelenos found something else to focus on. While there were some individual success stories from the CRA and Rebuild LA, it’s hard to assess what lasting good was done. A recent released report from UCLA, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the unrest, reports that economic conditions in South Central, if anything, have worsened slightly.

***

The emergence of downtown as a popular residential neighborhood, along with the redevelopment of Hollywood, were perhaps the two most remarkable planning events in the past quarter century – and it was quite a quarter-century.

Other great planning events include the completion of the Century (105) Freeway, creating a link between southern suburbs and aerospace jobs in the LAX area, which was no longer needed because those jobs had largely disappeared. Several new transit lines reached completion to Pasadena, East L.A., the San Gabriel Valley and Santa Monica, but these expensive projects were not enough to offset freeway congestion. More importantly, football returned, in the form of the Rams. And the Chargers. Boba drinks, designer cupcakes, Korean-Mexican fusion tacos, all left their marks. South Central L.A. was renamed South L.A.

The web arrived, swallowed the music, travel, and newspaper industries, among others, while failing to end civilization on New Years 2000. Forest fires grew more frequent and more intense. Multiple droughts occurred. The Chinese became the biggest foreign investors in L.A. real estate. Jerry Brown killed the redevelopment agencies. Housing prices grew to absurd levels, and city officials acknowledged that the city was in a perpetual housing crisis. L.A. had three boring mayors who seemed to accomplish nothing; the current mayor is a bright young man with some good ideas about walkable streets and other urban amenities that world-class cities should enjoy.

Again, the question is where is the constituency for planning? Los Angeles still doesn’t know what it is. Civic awareness is non-existent in this unfriendliest of cities.

***

On a personal note, I remarried, sold my West Adams house at a $50,000 loss after I heard gunfire one afternoon while the children were playing outside. I remarried and bought a house in the Valley. I read about violence in South Central in the L.A. Times with a mixture of revulsion, guilt and relief. Young people were still dying needlessly from gun violence, but now they were far away; there was nothing to do but shake your head and turn the page.

As for South Central, the experiences of both Rebuild LA and the CRA suggest that the social and economic problems are too deep to respond to real estate solutions by themselves. Physical planning can provide improvements in mobility and housing. The fundamental problem remains economic.

In my view, the federal government should revive the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and create millions of jobs. In other words, the government should invest directly in individual people by giving them paychecks -- as opposed to tax credits or other financial incentives to developers and contractors. The much-discussed need to repair perhaps $1 trillion in freeways, roads, dams and bridges would seem like a good fit here.

In addition to a new WPA, government should form joint ventures with tech companies, and create manufacturing or just-in-time delivery warehouses in inner city locations. Perhaps the government could subsidize the physical plant, the cost of training and other non-business-related costs. I believe Freud when he says that people need “love and work.” High unemployment is a cause of substance abuse, fatherless households, spousal abuse and incarceration; an unemployed person is a frustrated person and sometimes a dangerous one, too.

Glitzy shopping centers and expensive upgrades of cultural monuments like Watts Tower are nice, but they don’t really touch the fundamental issue, which is economic. Neighborhoods improve when people are working. People can buy homes, or refinance and repair existing ones. Unemployment is a persistent problem in South Central, because African-American unemployment is higher than white unemployment, especially for teenagers and young adults. High-paying jobs, followed by improve education and better health care, are the right medicines for South Central.

Compared with those five days, the breeze has been relatively gentle in Los Angeles over the past 25 years. We need to do more to keep it that way.