It is a familiar ritual. A plane crashes, a volcano erupts, the ground quakes--and precisely 12 months later, on a disaster’s anniversary, those who suffered and survived take stock and remember.
There is no special magic in the passing of 365 days, no sudden lifting of clouds. But the cycle of the calendar provides a benchmark to measure progress, or the lack of it. Where were we then? Where are we now? What of the future?
On Thursday, April 29, 1993, Los Angeles asked itself those questions.
One year after not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case sparked fires, looting and violence, Angelenos commemorated a defining day in their city’s history in ways that reflected the diversity of the city.
Angry calls for solutions to the city’s continuing problems were counterbalanced by solemn prayer services. Scholars pondered. Janitors protested. A couple whose Laundromat was burned to the ground in South-Central was busy putting the finishing touches on a new one that they hope will underwrite the retirement they were forced to delay.
As gang members rallied for peace at a “town hall” meeting near Los Angeles International Airport, hundreds of high school students gathered to talk about their place in a city they will inherit. Los Angeles’ two mayoral hopefuls, meanwhile, took advantage of the day to troll for votes.
In the Pico-Union district, devastated by last spring’s unrest, Latino activists reminded policy-makers that a year may have passed but the troubles that gave rise to the eruption remain. “The bigger challenge still lies ahead,” said Miguel Santana of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
At a noontime “worship of unity” service at a church at the border of South-Central and Koreatown, Paula Bellamy-Franklin, an African-American gospel singer, sat transfixed in a pew, tears welling in her eyes.
The song that touched her heart was one she knew well, and yet she had never heard it sung this way before: “Oo ree seung ri ha-ri-ra, oo ree seung ri ha-ri-ra,” a Korean-language rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”
“Everybody is so beautiful,” said Bellamy-Franklin, one of about 200 people who attended a joint bilingual service at the Congregational Church Christian Fellowship, United Church of Christ. “We are all of one blood.”
The service was sponsored by the African-American Korean-American Christian Alliance, which recently received $100,000 from the Council of Korean Christian Leaders in South Korea to work toward improving relations between the two communities.
“When we get to know each other as individuals, we can break down the hardest of stereotypes,” said the Rev. Madison Shockley, who told the worshipers from 20 churches that African-Americans and Korean-Americans must move beyond customer-shopkeeper relationships to forge stronger bonds.
“We are all responsible for restoring this wounded city,” said the Rev. Hee-Min Park, senior pastor of the Young Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles.
Across town, on Manchester Boulevard near Western Avenue, Bill and Edna Clarity were close to restoring their little corner of the city--a Laundromat and music store.
One year before, the African-American couple were in Las Vegas, shopping for a vacation home. After years of hard work building up their business, they were looking forward to letting their children take over and easing into semi-retirement. Then, they heard the news: Los Angeles was on fire.
In a panic, they immediately headed back. When they reached Baker, Calif., a news report on the radio shattered a life’s work.
“It said: ‘We’re at Manchester and Western. . . . And oops! There goes the Laundromat!’ ” said Bill Clarity, 58. The adjacent music store was ransacked too, and both businesses were torched. In the rubble, the Claritys found only $3,000 in quarters.
“They just wiped us out,” said Edna Clarity, 60, wiping tears from her eyes.
But with help from a Small Business Administration loan and their insurance coverage--not to mention their unwavering faith in God--the Claritys rebuilt bigger and better: the new Laundromat has more washers and dryers, a closed-circuit TV that will broadcast gospel performances and a coffee machine that serves a blend called French vanilla.
“You cannot hold on to the past, whether it’s bad or good. You must reach forward,” Bill Clarity said as the couple and their son Jerry hurried to stock the shelves of the music store in time for a grand reopening Saturday.
“It’s easy to give up. That’s the easy thing to do,” Edna Clarity said. “But no matter what things look like, you’ve still got to go on.”
Guadalupe Covarrubias stood at the northwest corner of Pico Boulevard and Alvarado Street on Thursday morning, in the heart of Los Angeles’ huge Central American refugee community. The spot--the site of a thriving commercial complex that burned last year--is now a vacant, fenced-off patch of charred bricks, twisted metal supports and cracked foundations, a testament to urban destruction.
The scene matched Covarrubias’ mood. The Mexican immigrant said her Vermont Avenue variety store in South-Central was irreparably damaged by looters. For months, a friend had stored her remaining stock of clothing, knickknacks and luggage. But now, the friend was moving out, she said, and she had no place to turn.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Covarrubias said. “Maybe I’ll just leave what little I have left out on the street.”
Covarrubias was among several Latino residents and leaders who voiced their frustrations at a news conference they said was intended to commemorate not the 1992 riots, but the relative lack of response to them, especially in Latino neighborhoods. All cited the lack of government reinvestment in the crowded neighborhood west of downtown, where post-riot reconstruction has been minimal.
“The violence of fires and bullets has abated, but the violence to the human spirit continues,” said Oscar Andrade, executive director of El Rescate, an immigrant service organization.
In the evening, residents of Pico-Union and Los Angeles’ Eastside held a candlelight vigil at the ravaged corner of Pico and Alvarado, symbolically uniting the two Latino neighborhoods.
“Why is this happening to us?”
That was the question that went through Cheistone Phan-Yu’s mind last year when he and his sister, both Vietnamese-Americans, drove into the Mid-City area of Los Angeles during the rioting and were pelted with rocks.
“ ‘Why?’ . . . I asked myself. ‘Because we look Korean?’ ” said the student at the King/Drew Medical Magnet High School. “Well, I’m not even Korean, I’m Vietnamese. . . . If you look Asian, you are prone to get hurt.”
Phan-Yu was one of more than 500 teen-agers from 22 Southland high schools who descended upon the lawns of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine on Thursday to reflect on the state of their communities.
Sitting in the shade of a makeshift white tent, Pamela Pilate led a discussion of 15 kids--one of nearly 35 such small groups at the second annual “Youth Congress” organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In response to her prodding, the young men and women discussed how last year’s unrest had changed their young lives.
“You just got to watch your back--you never know what’s going to happen,” said a quiet Eleazar Roman, 18, of Carson. “Most adults--they say it’s not going to happen again. But the gangs and them . . . they don’t care about anyone’s lives. They don’t even care about their own.”
On a piece of butcher paper taped to the side of a building, teen-agers answered the question: “What’s the biggest change in your school/community since last year’s riot/rebellion?”
“What change?” answered one.
But at an open microphone session later in the day, participants were optimistic. “Today’s youth does have a voice,” said Christina Mamarce, 17, of King/Drew. “We are not as dumb as some people may think we are.”
“I got to learn about other cultures,” said Ivan Gonzales, 17, of Verbum Dei in Watts. “I used to down other cultures ‘cause I didn’t know them. I hope you all know about Mexican culture. Because if you didn’t . . . well, we’ll teach you. Keep the peace.”
In the MacArthur Park area, the grand opening of Coronado Place, a 41-unit low-income apartment on South Coronado Street, lent a festive air to the otherwise struggling neighborhood where crime and drugs plague residents.
“I’m so happy! I’m so happy!” exclaimed Nicole LeFlore, 21, as she held her daughter, Denisha, 1, tightly in her arms. “I don’t have to live in a garage anymore.”
LeFlore said she had been homeless since 1988, constantly moving from place to place. But next week, she’ll be moving into a tastefully furnished one-bedroom apartment at the Coronado--thanks to Beyond Shelter, a nonprofit organization that helps break the cycle of recurrent homelessness by removing homeless families from the streets.
Because Coronado Place provides on-site social services, LeFlore will be able to learn a skill while living there.
“I prayed every day and my prayers were answered,” she said.
It took four years and $5 million to renovate Coronado Place, once a roach-infested den of crime, prostitution and drug addicts. Tanya Tull, executive director of Beyond Shelter, said it was fitting that the Coronado would open on the anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.
“This project truly represents a rebuilding of our city,” she said.
At the headquarters of RLA, formerly known as Rebuild L.A., the privately run organization charged with invigorating the inner city, about 350 whistle-blowing union workers expressed their frustration with rebuilding efforts, flinging a huge red and white banner over the entrance.
“L.A.'s Two Faces,” said the banner, emblazoned with the faces of comedy and tragedy. “Glamour and Wealth. Poverty and Despair.”
The demonstrators, representing the group Justice for Janitors and other members of the Service Employees International Union Local 399, demanded the resignation of RLA Co-Chairman Peter V. Ueberroth and five other RLA board members, including Gov. Pete Wilson and mayoral candidate Richard Riordan.
A group of about 20 workers occupied the small RLA lobby, vowing not to leave until “they kick us out of here or agree to our demands,” organizer Jono Schaffer said.
One of those inside, 49-year-old janitor Rosa Ayala, said RLA has paid too little attention to the needs of Los Angeles’ working class.
“They must understand we live with very low salaries and very high rents,” said Ayala, who added that she works 10 to 11 hours a night at a Westwood high-rise. She said she makes $5 an hour for cleaning two floors of about 60 suites and has no benefits. “No one did anything for us during last year’s disturbance, and RLA is not doing anything for us now.”
The fax machines were busy at the headquarters of Riordan for Mayor, where Riordan had issued a statement on the significance of April 29, for immediate release.
“While much has changed in Los Angeles, much remains the same,” Riordan announced in the carefully worded missive that made no mention of the word riots , preferred by some segments of the community, or the word uprising , preferred by others. Instead, Riordan--who later attended a candlelight vigil in Ardmore Park--called what happened civil disorder and called Los Angeles “a dysfunctional city.”
City Councilman Michael Woo, meanwhile, toured the charred rubble of a shopping center near the intersection of La Cienega and Pico boulevards. Trailed by more than a dozen supporters waving pro-Woo placards, the candidate led the media on a door-to-door junket. The only catch: The people he encountered had little interest in discussing the riots.
“As far as the riots, it didn’t really affect us,” said Mark Stack, owner of an auto supply shop.
“So you didn’t have anybody try to break in the windows or anything like that?” Woo asked. Stack shook his head. Woo nodded to a riot-damaged building down the street. “Has the burning down of that project over there had any effect on your business?”
“It’s too bad when it burned down,” Stack said. “but I can’t really say it had any effect on us.”
Times staff writers Robert J. Lopez, Patrick J. McDonnell, Carla Rivera, Somini Sengupta and Richard Simon also contributed to this story.