IT HAS BEEN 15 years since angry residents took to the streets in South Los Angeles, leaving smoke hovering over the neighborhood and a swath of destruction on the ground. Since then, as much as $1 billion has been invested to rebuild and revitalize the community.
But to what effect? It's true that Starbucks has come to Crenshaw Boulevard. Yet, in spite of such generous financial balm, it remains unclear if anything has really changed.
Two studies, one published in 2005 by the Urban League and the other released several weeks ago by the United Way, report that despite the enormous financial investment — designed not just to upgrade the neighborhood but to set the stage for improving the lives of African American and Latino residents — significant race-based differences still exist. The premature death rate for African Americans in L.A., for example, is still nearly 10 times that of whites. And Latino and African American median family incomes are, on average, about half those of whites.
How can so much investment have made so little difference? The answer, I believe, lies in the misperceptions of those who created the rebuilding plan.
The organization that took the lead was known as Rebuild L.A. Its titular leader was Peter Ueberroth, who immediately before the unrest had chaired the Council on California Competitiveness, a committee appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to examine job loss and job creation in the state. The council gave primary importance to the private sector, and when Ueberroth got to Rebuild L.A., he did the same — seeking to spur commercial development in South-Central L.A.
Well-intentioned, no doubt, but the problem with an exclusive focus on commercial development is that it pays only cursory attention to the deeper, more basic needs of the community. People cannot succeed where the starting rungs of the "prosperity grid" are fractured, broken or nonexistent.
The prosperity grid is the network of conditions that make prosperity possible — thriving educational institutions, access to quality healthcare, safe streets and green spaces for children to play. Mending the grid is necessary for residents of South L.A. to build wealth and create a stronger economy.
Other shortcomings of Rebuild L.A.'s approach were quickly spotted as well. In a 1992 article in Time magazine, community activist Janet Clark said: "What people want is an active voice at the table . They want their needs to be discussed so it's not something shoved down their throats."
Yet engaging the community wasn't at the top of Rebuild L.A.'s agenda; its focus was on bringing in outside investment.
I'm not against commercial development. I imagine it is a good thing that Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Washington Mutual and Rite Aid all came to Crenshaw. It also is heartening that commercial and residential development is underway at the intersection of Western and Slauson and that there is ongoing development around Manchester and Vermont.
But community development has to be about more than a chai mocha latte. New commercial establishments, and even new residential housing, don't get at the heart of the problems.
So where do we go from here? First, we must seek the community's input, guidance and wisdom. It's no longer appropriate to simply parachute into communities with pre-developed agendas. There are many folks throughout the Southside who know what works and what doesn't.
Second, as Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, a private health foundation, argued in a recent speech, we must understand that fixing the prosperity grid requires an integrated approach. We cannot dramatically improve the quality of life in South L.A. without simultaneously providing better schools and public safety as well as access to healthcare, employment and housing.
This is an enormous undertaking, of course. For that reason, it's critical that it be done neighborhood by neighborhood, in model projects that can eventually serve as blueprints for engagement elsewhere. The Urban League's plan to revitalize the 70 square blocks around Crenshaw High School, and the plans for the 60-block area in New York known as the Harlem Children's Zone, represent new models of community development that simultaneously address multiple issues.
Third, we must develop a compelling narrative about how and why this is important to the future of L.A. This is a battle over public will, and we have to provide a rationale for people to act. We must convince them that everyone benefits when communities such as South L.A. thrive. If we can't make it happen, we will continue to face the same social unrest that has plagued L.A. sporadically since 1965.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "We are tied in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."