Sorry for sounding a bit cynical about this, but examining the economic ups and downs of urban L.A. should not be based on how many years it's been since the riots. I mean, is all this dutiful reflection just a pro-forma rehash we'll be carrying out every five or 10 years? Where is everybody the rest of the time? From my limited perch, I have noticed many positive developments over the last 20 years - more retail, more housing, less crime. Of course South L.A.'s economy remains weak - no doubt made weaker by the recession - but in some respects it is light years better than during those terrible days in 1992.
The improvement, however, isn't based on efforts made right after the disturbances. It's certainly not the result of Rebuild L.A., the organization started up by Peter Ueberroth and others as a sort of force-fed capital infusion. While the private sector did pony up hundreds of millions of dollars, former Mayor Richard Riordan said on "Which Way, L.A." that RLA "was a great idea that didn't work very well." Politics was part of it, as was the more physically devastating Northridge earthquake two years later. Let's also not forget that the economy was in lousy shape in the first half of the 1990s - riots or no riots. That clearly put a damper on speculative investment activity. By the late 90s, when the recovery was in full force, hiring picked up and so did business expansion. A growing economy works wonders.
As part of the L.A. Business Journal's 10-year anniversary coverage in 2002, reporter Howard Fine noted that "unrealistically high expectations were generated for Rebuild L.A. and the federal programs. South Los Angeles had been in gradual but inexorable decline for 40 years. No programs, no matter how well intentioned, could possibly turn that around in a couple years." Here's more:
Before it disbanded in 1997, Rebuild L.A. managed to secure $312 million in corporate commitments to revitalize the inner city, and another $70 million in job training and other community programs. IBM, Ralphs Grocery Co., Bank of America, the Gas Co. and other corporations donated tens of millions of dollars. "RLA put a third of a billion dollars in capital into South L.A. that wasn't there before. Of course that made a difference," said John Bryant, president and chief executive of Operation Hope. But another $100 million in promised new capital never did materialize. When RLA disbanded after its five-year mandate ended in 1997, it turned over the job of economic revitalization to the Community Development Technology Center, an organization affiliated with local community colleges.
So what about now? Well, the city's unemployment rate remains very high, especially in areas that were impacted by the riots. But that would have been true no matter what happened on April 29. Look, it's not that complicated:
--L.A. County's high school dropout rate is currently around 20 percent (closer to twice that number in portions of South L.A.).
--Less than 40 percent of the Americans over age 25 who lack a high-school diploma are employed.
--Among those who are working, average pay is $23,400 (barely above the poverty level, depending on how you do the counting).
In other words, this is clearly more than a South L.A. problem, or even a California problem, and it's not going anywhere. And yet, I find myself hopeful. The economic picture is different than it was in 1992. I was recently on a panel with investor Brad Johnson, who earlier this year opened the restaurant Post & Beam near Crenshaw Plaza. Johnson sees similarities with what's happening in Crenshaw and what happened some years back in Harlem. "You've got people who have been in this community for many generations who have remained dedicated to living here and they deserve better than gangs, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants," Johnson told Neon Tommy. "[This area] shows the economic viability of the community." The potential is there, as it's always been. The question is whether it can ever be realized, even without the help of a cooperative economy.