Fear of renewed civil disturbance is on the minds of many potential investors in L.A.'s inner city. One major supermarket chain has postponed a multimillion-dollar investment, pending the verdicts in the Reginald O. Denny-beating trial. Other private entrepreneurs, including some Korean merchants, worry about rising tension as the verdicts draw near and shy away from reinvesting in their community. Instead, they open stores or, increasingly, build factories in outlying areas.
Allowing such an uncertain investment climate to continue would be a tragedy not only for the inner city but for all Southern California. Economically neglected areas, stretch from parts of Venice to East Los Angeles, from Pacoima to San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach. That's roughly 163 square miles with a population of 2.5 million, or more people than live in the state of Arkansas.
Whether influenced by media stereotypes or by self-appointed community spokespersons, many seem to regard these communities as incapable of renewal. Truth be told, today's inner-city residents have essentially the same hopes and dreams of economic independence as do other Angelenos. Indeed, there is more economic activity going on in these communities and among those who live there than many suspect. More than any city in America, Los Angeles has long been a center of ethnic enterprise. It boasts the largest concentrations of African-American-, Asian- and Latino-owned companies in North America.
The trick, then, is to stimulate these and other enterprises. One effective means would be for businesses already here to expand their operations into the economically neglected areas, which, after all, often represent a huge and underserved market in terms of customers, employees and profits.
Another is drawing as many participants as possible into the rebuilding process. This can involve creating a job or helping a church or community group provide assistance in the inner city. It also includes responding to the decline-mongers, within and outside the city, who distort realities of life in Los Angeles.
This is simply enlightened regional self-interest. Los Angeles--indeed, all Southern California--is essentially a nation vying with other regions in the United States and around the world for jobs, technology and capital. To be truly effective in this competition, Angelenos must recognize they cannot afford to allow large, strategically located areas and their populations lie hostage to fears of unceasing strife. South-Central, for example, is located between the nation's largest port and the largest commercial center on the West Coast. We cannot successfully compete in the emerging global economy if so much valuable territory and so many potentially talented players are squandered by neglect.
In this light, the most damaging consequence of the rhetorical militancy surrounding the Denny-beating trial and the sentencing of the two officers convicted of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights is to lock in the negative perceptions many in the economic mainstream have in regards to the inner city. How inner-city residents think about their abilities to improve their own conditions is also adversely affected.
Perhaps worst of all, the rhetoric has obscured the many political changes that may quicken the pace of an economic turnaround. First, the appointment of Willie L. Williams as chief of police promises to bring about reforms that will address some of the grievances that led to the riots. Second, many superb efforts to overhaul L.A.'s schools are under way. Third, the election of Richard Riordan as mayor has brought a renewed sense of purpose and leadership to the economic-rebuilding efforts started by RLA and a host of local organizations.
It is on the economic front that we can see the most dramatic changes. In sharp contrast to the aftermath of the riots in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities during the '60s, nearly 60% of the buildings destroyed in last year's riots have either been rebuilt or are under reconstruction. Only 4% of the buildings destroyed or damaged have been untouched. Overall, the post-riot rebuilding in Los Angeles exceeds that following the fire in the Oakland Hills and is twice as great as the reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Florida.
The more significant comparison is with post-riot Watts, Detroit and Newark. To date, virtually none of these areas have recovered. In Newark, for example, it took 25 years to get one supermarket--and with generous government funding. By contrast, since the L.A. '92 riots, 32 supermarkets have announced commitments to build stores in the affected areas.
But these have not been the only signs of corporate interest in L.A.'s neglected communities. Sixteen companies--Xerox, Candle, Toyota, Hyundai, among them--have set up training programs, with real jobs in the pipeline, in the area.
Equally significant, numerous efforts to attract private capital have succeeded in helping to finance scores of new business enterprise and to assist existing companies re-establish themselves after the riots. Other grass-roots campaigns, including church-sponsored "investment clubs" and entrepreneurial training classes, have blossomed. As a result, hundreds of new businesses have started up in the midst of the recession.
The Legislature's recent move to improve the business climate in California will also benefit the rebuilding effort. Reform of workers' compensation, tax credits for equipment purchases and a lower state capital-gains tax are some of the measures that will help create more jobs by attracting new companies here.
The polarizing rhetoric of some groups, echoed by the media, threatens to disrupt and delay these positive developments. Consider the case of the 27th Street Bakery, a black-owned firm located on Central Avenue. The riots destroyed a large number of the bakery's sales outlets. But with the help of RLA, the Los Angeles Women's Entrepreneurial Fund and corporations such as Smart & Final, 27th Street's sales now approach the pre-riot level.
Yet, even as his company grows, manager Greg Spann, whose family has been doing business on Central Avenue for three generations, fears that the "no justice, no peace" rhetoric of some activists may doom his dreams of expansion, which largely hinge on the establishment of new supermarkets and retail stores in the inner city.
Greg Spann and others like him are our future. If all Angelenos get involved, his and other inner-city residents' dreams of economic independence will transform this city into a strong leader in the 21st Century. A spirit of cooperation, confidence and shared values offer a higher quality of life for everyone.*