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Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

Hed — A Still-Forgotten Econo

On the five-year anniversary of the L.A. riots, it’s perhaps easier to speak of the subsequent failures than the successes.

Failures can be spotted along South Central’s commercial stretches, where empty lots, boarded-up stores and even burned-out buildings reflect the frustration and neglect that characterize much of the inner-city economy.

In many ways, it’s a failure that was apparent well before 1992’s civil unrest (some of those vacant lots go back to the 1965 Watts riots) a failure of economic, political and social imperatives.

Successes in South Central L.A. are significantly harder to find, but not necessarily because they’re not there. As seen in this week’s package of stories marking the riot’s five-year anniversary, there are compelling, often courageous stories of South Central entrepreneurs be they African American, Korean or Hispanic who decided to stay put in their community.

There also are a small number of chains Chief Auto Parts, Food 4 Less, Smart & Final and Taco Bell among them that have made significant investments in South Central business districts. Their presence doesn’t just reflect corporate do-goodism, but pragmatic business sense; the South Central marketplace is simply too inviting to pass up.

In capturing both failures and successes, we are hard put to reach a bottom-line conclusion about the state of the South Central business community, other than to note two things: There has been more progress than the critics are willing to concede, and much of the progress is the result of small-scale private enterprise rather than government intrusion.

It didn’t start out that way. In the weeks following the civil unrest, Rebuild L.A., under the tutelage of Peter Ueberroth, was charged with spearheading a massive recovery effort that was fueled largely by corporate donations. It was a misguided strategy from the start because at its core, South Central is a community of small- to mid-sized businesses that don’t fit into a Fortune 500 orientation. Many of those corporate promises were either redefined often to cover other areas of L.A. or simply annulled.

To her credit, Linda Griego, who later took charge of the organization (renamed RLA), has focused on more practical pursuits, such as getting supermarkets and other retailers into the area. In addition, any number of grass-roots business groups have played a surprising and largely unheralded role in rebuilding burned-out strip malls and in the process, generating jobs (albeit low-paying ones).

Of course, it remains a very mixed picture. In many respects, South Central is still a depressed economy that continues to miss out on the vitality of Los Angeles as a whole. Of all the facts and figures included in our special report, the most troubling is that there are fewer jobs and businesses in the area today than before the 1992 riots.

Certainly, the economic rebound of the last two years has helped but proportionately, not as much as in other parts of the city.

Why? The reasons are as obvious today as they were five years ago (or 10 or 20 years ago, for that matter): The inner city continues to be viewed as an especially risky investment, a place where many big lenders would rather avoid. Transcending that attitude, alas, is a long-term proposition that a five-year anniversary won’t be able to speed up.

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