COLUMN ONE : South L.A. Burns and Grieves : Life has been hard in the neglected area for years. But now, as self-inflicted wounds mount, residents fear for the future.


In a smoky parking lot in South Los Angeles, Ruby Galude, 55, stared in disbelief at the wreckage of her local grocery store. “I’m a diabetic. This is where I get all my juices and foods,” she said, peering at shards of glass and soaked debris. “What am I going to do now?”

A few miles away, Paul C. Hudson arrived at his family-run savings and loan, a community fixture since 1947 in a neighborhood that has a grave shortage of banks. On Wednesday night it burned down. “Just the exterior wall was left standing,” he said.

Anthony Wright and his wife, Jaye, meanwhile, sat in lawn chairs, as radio news blared from their pickup truck. Just a few blocks away, hundreds of people were on a looting rampage on Vermont Avenue.

Hard times fuel the fury, said Jaye Wright, a teacher’s aide. “It’s not a recession for minority communities. It’s a depression.”

Long before this week’s spasm of destruction, daily life in parts of South Los Angeles was grueling in ways much different from elsewhere in the city. In ordinary, mundane ways--from a shortage of grocery stores and credit at normal interest rates to a scarcity of jobs and the more publicized ills of crime and drugs--it was often hard to get through a typical day.


Now, the rising toll in human life, torched businesses and destroyed property are adding insult to an already dangerous, frustrating existence.

On Thursday, some residents spoke in determined voices about getting on with the job of rebuilding their community. There were brave pronouncements of commitment to the future; promises that shellshocked South Los Angeles would pick itself up and, with the aid of new investment, move forward after the rioting subsides.

“We have an obligation to reopen,” said Hudson, president of Broadway Federal Savings & Loan, whose green, two-story headquarters on 45th Street survived the Watts riots but not the current mayhem.

However, there were other voices as well--voices of profound disappointment in this country, angry accusations that years of economic injustice and neglect set the stage for violence. And behind the veil of smoke and chaos, a pessimism also seemed to rise--a pessimism that tomorrow might not be better than today, after all.

Baciliso Merino, a short, muscular construction worker, said that life in the city has turned out far worse than he ever dreamed when he brought his family to South Los Angeles from central Mexico a year ago. Wednesday night, he had to climb to the roof of his yellow stucco home to hose down embers that were landing from nearby fires.

But even in normal times, he worries about drive-by shootings and other crime. The unsettling roar of police helicopters is common background noise; police routinely close off streets in pursuit of drug dealers, leaving law-abiding residents marooned in the neighborhood.

America has turned out like “a golden cage,” he said, quoting a Mexican song, as black ribbons of smoke rose to the north, south and east of his home near Slauson. “You expect to find so much wealth, but instead you find a prison.”

In part, the deprivation is in everyday commercial life, where people often have to pay higher prices with fewer choices, where residents who want to cash checks sometimes wait in endless lines more reminiscent of Moscow than Los Angeles.

Since the days of the Watts riots, most major supermarket chains have cut back their stores in South Los Angeles. Other retailers are wary of settling there altogether. On Thursday, Thrifty Drug--which lost four outlets during the 1965 Watts riots--reported that it has lost three stores this week, shut down 11, and may not rebuild those that are destroyed.

Dazed residents worried that life in the worst neighborhoods will become even more thankless, with the help of self-inflicted wounds. People “won’t have anywhere to eat. They won’t have anywhere to buy gas. They won’t have anywhere to buy groceries,” said Jacquie Wade, who had ventured into a strife-torn neighborhood to see if her church was still standing. It was.

She was in a small shopping center near Figueroa Street, where other structures suffered a different fate. A public library and hamburger stand had been transformed to smoldering rubble.

The frustrations are also a product of limited jobs. Famous manufacturers, such as General Motors, Goodyear, Firestone and Bethlehem Steel, all used to provide South Los Angeles residents the chance for a living wage and upward mobility--including those without education.

By the 1980s, most such jobs vanished, a result of declining U.S. competitiveness. In the ashes, residents were forced into a lower-wage economy of light industry, welding shops, furniture makers, garment factories, fast-food restaurants and other employers.

But even those employers are taking a pounding in the recent bedlam, with a further loss to the community.

“You’re talking about janitorial-maintenance companies, clothing stores, restaurants, cleaners,” said Gene Hale, chairman of the African-American Chamber of Commerce. “You can go across the board--these are little shopping centers, with businesses nailed together. One fire will get them all.”

Much of the new business reflects profound population change, which has brought new tensions: As recently as 10 years ago, most of the population was African-American; since then, an influx of Korean-American merchants and Latino residents has turned South Los Angeles into a melting pot.

But the black residents have long complained that some of their newer neighbors, who often own small shops, do not treat them with respect.

“It’s sad,” said Moddie V. Wilson III, who posted hastily scribbled signs on the front windows of his hardware store at Crenshaw and 43rd Place, saying “Black-Owned Business,” to ward off potential looters.

“Black people are disenfranchised in this community. We don’t have many stores, but some had started to come back. Now I don’t know. It’s gotten beyond Rodney King. Rodney King was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

One looter, casually walking along Western Avenue with a brand-new stereo speaker, voiced the outrage of many black residents toward some of the immigrant merchants: “These businesses (we) burned down don’t care about us,” he said. He further cited the case of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old high school student who was shot to death by a Korean storekeeper. The storekeeper, convicted of voluntary manslaughter, was placed on probation. “They just charge high prices and take our money. Now we are taking some back.”

Property seemed to have special symbolism to the street vandals. While residents raised their fists at police cars and cried, “No justice! No peace!” it was retailers, factories and other enterprises that received the brunt of a rage that some residents and community experts say stems from a painful economic isolation.

While not condoning lawlessness, some community leaders sought at least to offer some insight into the violence. Carl Dickerson, president of the Black Business Assn. of Los Angeles, spoke of the perceived analogy between injustice in the courthouse and injustice in the job market.

The outpouring of rage, he maintained, comes in part because many people associate the verdict in the King case with “economic injustice” in their own lives.

“Reacting to this miscarriage of justice . . . prompts people to conclude that the system has also treated them unfairly,” Dickerson said. “They should have jobs and opportunities, but they don’t. The recession has resulted in a reduction of jobs, mergers have led to job loss, the aerospace industry is losing jobs and there is a flight of industry from California.”

With fewer than 35 major supermarkets and 20 banks and thrifts serving a 35-square-mile area of more than half a million people, South Los Angeles has grown a world apart from the traditional wheels of commerce as businesses have fled.

Today, in some sections of South Los Angeles , the nearest full-service grocery stores are often at least two bus rides away and neighborhood mom-and-pop stores sometimes charge as much as 30% more than bigger retailers.

Meanwhile, there are so few banks and thrifts that residents routinely stand in lines for hours to make a deposit or cash a check. In fact, financial institutions are so scarce, that in some areas of South Los Angeles armored trucks rumble to job sites on paydays to cash checks for workers.

“I don’t think black people really want to put anybody out of business,” said Patsy Brown, a well-known Crenshaw-area businesswoman who kept her Papa’s Grocery store on Vernon and Van Ness open all day Thursday amid the raging fires and looting in nearby blocks.

“But they are angry that they have no choice (of merchants) in their community. People have supported me not because I’m black, but because I give good service to them. A lot of these other stores can’t” make that claim, Brown said.

Near a corner mini-mall on Figueroa Street, two young men discussed the eerie drama unfolding before their eyes, as the remnants of a store, now unrecognizable, smoldered. Firefighters continued to put out the embers.

Alex Zendejas, 18, said he expected damaged or looted businesses to be reopened. However, he expressed some regret about certain short-term economic losses resulting from the disturbances.

“Maybe people should have taken their protest to some other neighborhoods,” he said.

His friend, Sadi Dukes, 17, agreed. “I’d rather see this happening in Pasadena or Simi Valley,” he said. “I don’t think people should mess up their own neighborhood.”

Many of the looters, Zendejas added, “have nothing to lose and something to gain.”

Other witnesses were outraged, and drew a clear connection between the wanton vandalism and quality of life in the coming days. For example, William Small talked with other neighborhood residents as looters hauled goods from Car Sound, a car stereo retailer on Vermont near 25th Street.

“These looters may not realize it, but this is criminal activity,” Small said. “If they’re caught and put in jail, they will understand just how criminal this is.”

Small said many business owners with riot-related losses have no insurance and will not reopen their enterprises.

“People will have to leave the area just to shop,” he said. “I don’t have a car. That means I’ll have to take a bus to get what I need.”

Amid the destruction, some business leaders vowed to rebuild the community, and there were countless acts of heroism and decency. But on the day that South Los Angeles continued to burn, the lasting image was far more dark and bewildering.

At the corner of 43rd Place and Crenshaw, more than a dozen laughing and animated patrons packed the tiny Crenshaw Cafe’s outdoor tables, sipping coffee and dining on a hearty breakfast of pancakes and eggs. Across the street a ferocious fire was blazing, sending a trail of destruction through a manicure shop and the Muslim Community Center.

Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Paul Feldman, Jube Shiver, George White, Stuart Silverstein and Patrick Lee contributed to this story.

Also contributing to riot coverage were Times staff writers Bob Baker, Edward J. Boyer, Bill Boyarsky, Daniel Cariaga, Irene Chang, Rich Connell, Michael Connelly, Richard Cromelin, Paul Dean, Sylvie Drake, David Dorion, Norman Duarte, Ken Ellingwood, Paul Feldman, Andrea Ford, David Fox, Ralph Frammolino, Laura Galloway, Jerry Gillam, Mark Gladstone, Larry Gordon, Gary Gorman, Tina Griego, Scott Harris, Neison Himmel, Carl Ingram, Jesse Katz, Amy Louise Kazmin, Roxana Kopetman, Greg Krikorian, Daryl Kelley, Penelope McMillan, Jean Merl, Judy Michaelson, John Mitchell, Josh Meyer, Suzanne Muchnic, Edmund Newton, Santiago O’Donnell, Janet Rae-Dupree, George Ramos, Cecilia Rasmussen, Mack Reed, Kenneth Reich, Andy Rivera, Ron Russell, D’Jamila Salem, Bob Sipchen, George Skelton, Phil Sneiderman, Shauna Snow, Edith Stanley, Mark Stein, Julie Tamaki, Vicki Torres, Cynthia Viers, Amy Wallace, Mike Ward, Dan Weikel, Daniel M. Weintraub, Tracy Wood, Chris Woodyard and Eric Young.