Today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles civil unrest, my sense of frustration remains intact with all parties: the Los Angeles Police Department and former Chief Darryl Gates; the looters who torched and ransacked small businesses in my former neighborhood in West Adams; and all-white juries in suburban communities, with their curious reluctance to convict policemen accused of using excessive force.
Even more frustrating, however, was the failure on the part of both business and government to acknowledge the deepest, fundamental cause of the riots, which was institutionalized racism. This type of racism took the form of "red-lining" by banks and insurance companies, which often refused to make loans or underwrite businesses in "undesirable" or "high-risk" (i.e. minority) areas. This resulting economic devastation of red lining can be found can be found in African-American communities throughout the United States. African-American communities are poor not because black people are somehow lacking in enterprise but rather because major lenders have denied them capital.
Let's be very clear: institutionalized poverty, made possible by red lining, was the real cause of the Rodney King riots.
Also frustrating, if well-intentioned, was the effort of private, non-government groups like Rebuild L.A. to attract both capital and businesses to the riot area. Remember that riot area stretched from Long Beach to Pasadena. (Like everything else in Los Angeles, the riots took a linear path, along major thoroughfares, in cars.) I was skeptical then, and remain so now, that private enterprise was somehow more able than government to break down the colossal edifice of racism, poverty and blue lining.
Rebuild LA eventually wound down a few years later with few tangible achievements; perhaps the organization should be credited with providing good public relations and a positive push to lenders to support the development new shopping centers and some new housing in South Central. In fact, working class people spend much of their disposable income, more so than everybody else does, on food and retail goods. Retailers often do well in working class neighborhoods (although some supermarkets have complained in the past that pilferage has made some stores unprofitable and driven up food prices in poor neighborhoods.)
Yet South Central in general and the LA in particular are better off now than they were 20 years ago. The reasons, ironically, may have little to do with the King riots. The first reason is the rapid growth of the African-American middle class, and the slow realization on the part of corporate America that the majority of African-Americans are middle income wage earners, not scowling gangbangers with gold-plated cocaine spoons dangling from their neck chains. Although grotesque and bigoted, this misperception of the Black community continues to hold sway in many parts of the country.
A second reason was the ï¿½SoHo phenomenon,' or the fad of buying cheap industrial buildings or outdated office buildings in downtown areas for conversion into fashionable "loft" housing. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the widespread popularity of this type of real estate investment increased the comfort level of lenders who would have shunned such deals even a few years earlier. (In fairness, this loft-conversion mania was largely market-driven, even though local agencies, such as the late LA Community Redevelopment Agency, had spent decades advocating for downtown housing, with limited results.)
A third reason is the rise of ethnic retailing, with shopping centers designed for specific populations--notably Latino and Asian communities. The success of these businesses, and their corporate "depth" of capital, has increased their popularity among both shopping center owners and the lenders who review all their leasing decisions.
Money is the common factor among all these reasons for recovery. Urban areasï¿½and that includes the suburbsï¿½depend on steady infusions of capital to attract new residents and new employers while maintaining property values. When new investment came to South Central, the community improved, if only a little.
And yet, a few years ago, I covered a story of a new charter school on Vermont Avenue, not far from the intersection where the riots started. The architects explained to me that the building lacked transparent windows, to protect students from the possibility of targeted shootings. The neighborhood is better for having the school, but the defensive character of the school building is a reminder that social conditions remain much the same as they were before the Walpurgisnacht of 1992.
Finally, a word of thanks to Warren Olney and his producer and my long-time pal Frances Anderton at "Which Way LA?" on KCRW-FM, in Santa Monica, for producing an excellent, five-day documentary on LA before and after the Rodney King riots. Also, in a shameless plug, the present writer can be heard in an interview about the impact of the riots on the built environment is featured on the Wednesday show. (Archive of the entire five-show series is available on www.kcrw.org.)