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25 years after riots, South L.A. still waiting for its renaissance

The 4300 block of Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park has a look of faded glory, with its shuttered storefronts and stalled promise. Like so many parts of South Los Angeles, this is not what anyone would have hoped for when, a quarter of a century ago, the uprising in the Rodney King cop-acquittal case raised hopes of better days.

Homeless people gather on and around Degnan, vehicle traffic is a trickle, pedestrians have wide berth, recorded jazz bumps from a store. But signs of life, and hope, include a newish art gallery/social service center and a jazz and blues museum next door to singer Barbara Morrison’s performing arts center. It makes you wonder if maybe, once the much-debated and long-awaited Metro station opens, Degnan will get a boost.

There is, already, a steady pulse in the middle of the block. It beats daily at a small business that has relocated several times, landing here 10 years ago, and endures, with its focus on black literature and books of political and social commentary. The store sells words, ideas and conversation, some of which gets heated.

“Like at a barbershop,” said Eso Won Books co-owner Thomas Hamilton.

“But we don’t cut hair,” said co-owner James Fugate.

Eso Won is a landmark, a community anchor, a piece of history. Open for almost 30 years, it has survived rising rents that forced its relocation to this block. It has survived giant corporate bookstores and, so far, the crushing rise of Amazon. And it has survived change in a neighborhood that was once predominantly black but where Spanish is now spoken, among other languages.

“You see more white people, people walking their dogs. I saw a white woman and two kids with a lemonade stand,” said Hamilton.

Some residents are worried about too much change, and the cost of gentrification, said Fugate. But a boost is needed, he and his partner agree, and in their eyes, the promise of investment in South Los Angeles never materialized in the aftermath of the King rebellion.

Hamilton points a finger at City Hall. Fugate points in another direction.

“Where’s our own investment in the community? I see very little,” he said, singling out black banks and wealthy entrepreneurs.

I noted that when I travel through South Los Angeles, I see lots of commerce. I see block after block of small businesses begun by Latinos selling everything from groceries and tools to bicycles and pinatas. Why Latino-owned shops and not black-owned shops?

“It’s deeply ingrained in our people not to get involved in business,” said Fugate.

And why is that?

“Because so much has gone against us,” he said.

And because power and financing are still usually controlled by someone other than black people, said Hamilton.

Looking back, both men said they were aware of the long-simmering unrest that preceded the events of 25 years ago. Two weeks after the televised, stomach-turning beating of King by cops, Latasha Harlins, 15, was shot and killed by a South Korean immigrant and shop owner who suspected her of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice.

The following year, when the cops who clubbed King were acquitted, Los Angeles smoldered.

“Rioting doesn’t work. It never has worked,” said Fugate, a Detroit native who believes the 1967 riots all but destroyed that city. In L.A., he understood the rage in 1992, but not the way it was expressed through days of fires, looting, the destruction of local businesses and the loss of life.

Faadil Asadullah, who used to run Africa by the Yard, a fabric store on the same block of Degnan, dropped in to Eso Won to say hello to the owners. He told me that his business suffered after the riots because his white customers were afraid to come to his shop, and the rise of gang banging didn’t help.

“I’m one of the few people who look forward to gentrification,” he said, telling me he hopes to reopen his business. “Because black people ain’t got no money.”

Leslie Adrienne Payne is a Rand researcher who frequents Eso Won, and I asked if she thought the flight of many blacks out of South Los Angeles is an indication that for some people, if not all, things have improved in the last 25 years.

Systemic racism still exists, she said. But if Latinos are now occupying “areas once inhabited by lower-income blacks,” the subtext may be that there have been more opportunities for black people.

Payne said she witnessed the riots, at age 16, but did not participate. Now 41, she sees what happened as a rebellion against “a protracted legacy of police brutality and mistreatment toward African Americans.” She thinks most black Angelenos would agree there’s still room for improvement.

Eso Won almost died several years ago. But patrons — and a column by my former colleague Sandy Banks — helped turn things around. On the wall behind the counter is a placard that says, “Providing Since 1987.”

Among the big-name authors hosted by Eso Won were President Clinton and Barack Obama, before the latter was president. For the owners of a store that’s been around since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, surprises never cease, and social progress is not linear.

Fugate said he never thought Obama would be elected. And after that historic breakthrough, he never thought Donald Trump would be elected.

One of the biggest draws ever at Eso Won was Rodney King, who appeared there in 2012, just a few weeks before his unexpected death. He was there to speak about his life and sign his book “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.”

A crowd squeezed into the store and spilled onto the street. As patrons told me this week, they saw King — unlike, say, O.J. Simpson — as one of them. As someone who suffered for, and vindicated, those who knew justice was not color blind.

Those in attendance heard King say he had not been an angel in life, and never thought he would find himself in the middle of civil rights history.

“I just don’t understand why things don’t change as fast as they need to change,” King said.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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From the Archives: L.A. Times staff covering the 1992 riots

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