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L.A., Six Months Later


Los Angeles -- Six months after the eruption of last spring's savage riots centered in South Central Los Angeles, the racial and economic crises of America's megalopolis on the Pacific remain unresolved.

A survey by the University of California at Los Angeles shows a deep, growing sense of cynicism and pessimism among Los Angeles blacks. Clashes between blacks and Hispanics at riot reconstruction sites, and angry City Hall demonstrations by Koreans demanding reparations, underscore the depth of the racial divisions.

The economic situation remains acute; joblessness continues to fuel desperation in many black and Hispanic neighborhoods. "The Southern California economy is in a tailspin and attracting businesses anywhere here, let alone to the inner city with its crime rates and work-force skill deficits, is a serious and awesome, awesome challenge," says Jane Pisano, dean of the University of Southern California's School of Public Administration.

As the riots hit, the recession was just bringing home to L.A. leaders the enormity of their economic crisis. "They never thought through that the break-up of the Soviet Union would break up the military-industrial complex" and its half-century long supply of defense jobs for Southern California, notes UCLA urban planner and black-studies specialist Eugene Grigsby. Nor, he adds, did L.A. leaders "ever think through the globalization of the economy," or the meaning of low-paying service jobs replacing high-paying manufacturing jobs.

This region of "10,000 celebrities who just talk, but no leaders" was ill-prepared for the riot shock, suggests Jon P. Goodman of USC's School of Business Administration. "There was no business assistance, no urban development program. L.A. had believed the redwoods grow to the sun -- that there are no limits to growth. They were just discovering their economic vulnerabilities. And then the riots."

Nor were the politicians of much help. They had let the L.A. Police Department careen out of control. Mayor Tom Bradley had neglected the urban poor in favor of downtown development. "We lost touch -- the council was living in a different world," says L.A. City Councilman Mike Hernandez.

Six months later, what's changed? A big plus is that Daryl Gates is no longer police chief. But local unemployment remains sky-high. California state and L.A. finances are both in a state of crisis. Mayor Bradley is a lame duck, the Los Angeles schools are in turmoil, gun sales have skyrocketed, and last week it was revealed that the police department, despite its pledge to introduce community policing, still has only 4 percent of its officers on the street at any given time.

What of "Rebuild L.A.," the effort spearheaded by business mogul Peter Ueberroth? Some credit is due here. Despite his initial ignorance about South Central, Ueberroth did move quickly to get promises of major corporate investment, starting with a pledge by the VONS supermarket chain to open 12 stores in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

What's more, Rebuild L.A. -- recently renamed R.L.A. with the "R" supposedly sounding like "Our" -- is also playing "matchmaker" in smaller, less glamorous business decisions. Mr. Ueberroth, to his credit, is trying to hold down the expectation of redevelopment miracles, making it clear the recovery job will take years.

As big a hope as R.L.A. (which has no permanent funding), are Los Angeles' many community-development corporations and entrepreneurs. Six CDCs have put together a strategic plan for South Central; at least two hope to be partners at the VONS supermarket sites. Capital shortage remains a severe problem for minority-owned enterprises and small-business growth, but a local campaign to strengthen three black-owned banks dramatically increased their deposits.

It's true that all the efforts since April seem Lilliputian compared to the sea of desperation -- the need and alienation -- gripping L.A.'s poor communities today. The decision by the big defense electronics firm HughesGM to invest $18 million in and around the riot-impacted areas was offset, for example, by its announcement that it would eliminate 6,000 jobs in the L.A. region.

But the riots not only revealed rage and undercurrents of hideous violence. They also made it clear race has to be dealt with up-front and honestly, that a vast multicultural society has to start striving for equity -- as Eugene Grigsby puts it, for true renewal "there's no such thing as a race-free policy."

Time may help. New city political leadership should surface eventually. Sheer need and common sense should amass more support for L.A.'s fledgling but promising interracial coalitions that have sprung up in response to the crisis.

But that won't solve the underlying economic dilemmas. Nor the fact that these neighborhoods do require massive outside aid. No strong regional alliance to help South Central L.A. has emerged, notwithstanding the obvious interdependence of all of Southern California. An urban-aid bill was jettisoned in the legislature after Republicans and rural Democrats questioned whether Los Angeles should, in effect, be rewarded for burning itself down.

As long as that mentality holds, no Hollywood set can mask L.A.'s alarmingly bleak prospects.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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