On Thursday, as the second anniversary of the riots approached, a colleague asked me if I was going to write a column about the occasion.
No, I said. I'm going to do something else. The Los Angeles Police Department was in the midst of an analysis of some of the city's most crime-ridden areas. I was going to visit one, and write about how things were going. What I'd forgotten was that the causes of the riots and crime were intertwined.
In Los Angeles, you can't write about one without considering the other.
I picked a neighborhood in Pacoima, in the northeast San Fernando Valley. With six murders, 56 robberies and 103 aggravated assaults last year, this small stretch of L.A. around San Fernando Road and Van Nuys Boulevard made it to the top rank of L.A.'s crime champs.
Then I planned to visit a middle-class residential neighborhood in the hills, Lake View Terrace. That would give me a chance to determine whether its proximity to the dangerous flatlands had poisoned the atmosphere with fear of crime. It also happened to be about two miles from the spot where Rodney King was beaten.
I love my job because events so often don't turn out the way I expect them to. This was one of those times.
On Friday, the anniversary of the riots, I drove north on Van Nuys Boulevard, looking over the shops, liquor stores, restaurants, auto repair places, markets and apartment houses. Off Van Nuys, I saw small single-story homes, the majority of them with well-tended yards. Everything looked peaceful.
I was sure the statistics didn't lie. Six deaths in a year is more than enough for a neighborhood just over two square miles in size, even though one of them actually occurred in Glendale and the killers dropped the corpse off in Pacoima. But the large number of single-family homes, and the amount of gardening that had gone into their yards, told me that the stats didn't tell the whole story.
Homeowners, permanent residents, gave the neighborhood strength. I've seen this in other so-called high-crime areas. Homeowners have a stake in the neighborhood. Sometimes they organize and fight the thugs.
This was the case here. Pacoima resident Arthur Broadous told me that three years ago, neighbors decided to chase out the drug dealers, although he's sure they're operating somewhere else. "We have a good Neighborhood Watch situation, and we are doing well. The police have gone out of their way to network with the community. They were doing this before Rodney King. During the riots, you didn't see trouble (here). We had been working with the Foothill Division before. It became stronger after."
Broadous is program director for the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center, where I met him. The center executive director is his sister-in-law, Connie Taylor-Broadous, who sends her small staff out into the Pacoima community every day to try to break the cycle of gangs, drugs and violent crime. Job training and other classes and Narcotics Anonymous 12-step sessions are among the programs offered by the center.
"You don't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," said center employee Phillip Vasquez, 24, who organizes recreational activities in two gang strongholds, the San Fernando Gardens public housing, and a large apartment house on Van Nuys Boulevard. "Keep your eyes open."
Despite the unfavorable statistics, Vasquez said he feels the area has been quieter since a gang truce began five months ago. Later in the day, City Councilman Richard Alarcon told me the same thing. "The gang truce is for real," he said. "Nobody assumes it will be here next month or next year, but while it's here we'll support it.
A cop patrolling the area didn't take such an optimistic view. When it comes to business--drugs--the gangs settle their disputes with gunfire, he said.
Despite this gloomy assessment, I found a lot of hope in the homeowner and community organizations that were fighting violent crime.
I was also surprised Saturday morning when I visited Lake View Terrace, a middle-class, racially integrated residential neighborhood in the foothills above Pacoima. I had assumed the residents would be frightened by their proximity to the high-crime area down below.
"It's nice and quiet around here," said Arnaldo Casillas, who has lived there eight years. "We haven't had much stuff on our block," said Roman Carter, who was talking to neighbor Lester Moreira. "Most of the neighbors watch out for each other. We all moved in at the same time. It's something we can be proud of. There are lots of areas where you can't say that."
Carter, who is African American, and Moreira, a Latino, moved into the subdivision when it was completed nine years ago. Carter watched the workers install the foundation of his home. Both sent their children to the nearby public Fenton Avenue School, which they consider excellent.
I drove down the hill to Foothill Boulevard and turned left, passing the spot in the 11700 block where Rodney King was beaten by the police, the event that sent Los Angeles down the path to the riot.
The legacy was not only death and destroyed property, but fear--a feeling that extended from the embattled areas to neighborhoods many miles away.
What I saw in Pacoima and Lake View Terrace was a way to fight the fear, through neighbors working with each other.
The crime statistics that sent me out on this mission are a first step. We need more of them, distributed widely so we know the crime situation in our neighborhoods. That will replace frightening rumor with fact.
This distribution of statistics, by the way, is an important part of the Police Department's community policing plan, which began in the Valley and is now being organized in South-Central Los Angeles and the rest of the city.
The cops will tell you what's happening. Then you help them stop it.