Riots' Scars Include 200 Still-Vacant Lots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You find many of them along South Vermont Avenue, little patches of concrete with weeds punching through the cracks, and stretches of land the size of football fields, where the grass grows tall and wild.

There are a few dozen in that nebulous stretch of Los Angeles known as Mid-City, along Olympic and Washington boulevards, and some in the immigrant enclaves of Pico-Union and Koreatown.

But mostly, they are in South-Central Los Angeles, undeveloped, raw chunks of property where, at 3 p.m. on April 29, 1992, buildings still stood. Five years later, their singed walls demolished, most of the debris hauled away, they remain empty lots.

A Times survey has found that about 200 vacant properties linger as casualties of the rioting that followed the reading of the Rodney King case verdicts five years ago.

By now, the ruins are taking on a certain permanence, much like the stretches of Watts that have remained undeveloped since the 1965 riots.

In all, about one of three Los Angeles buildings that were destroyed or sustained significant damage in the 1992 civil disturbances have yet to be repaired or rebuilt, The Times found.

The vacant parcels are scattered across the city, often in clusters of two or three, sometimes surrounded by a much larger number of standing structures. In South-Central Los Angeles, every neighborhood seems to have one, its own local monument to the riots.

The neighborhood around Normandie Avenue and 59th Street, less than a mile from one of the flash points on Florence Avenue, has two such lots, side by side, all that remains of the small community market that had stood on the site since the 1950s.

"You see, it looks terrible," said Lucille Hooper, who sells secondhand objects from a storefront and sidewalk across the street. "They haven't built anything. It looks dead, a ghost town."

A few corporations, notably Smart & Final, Taco Bell and Chief Auto Parts, have invested heavily in building on riot-damaged properties. Many small business owners have invested too--in all, more than 400 riot-damaged properties have been rebuilt or repaired, including a bevy of multistory strip malls in Koreatown and swap meets in South Los Angeles. There are even some new supermarkets, gleaming structures that could fit in any affluent suburb.

But for every two new or rebuilt properties, there is still a vacant lot--the site of a liquor store, mini-mall or grocery that was looted, torched or otherwise damaged five years ago.

And for every new development that can be touted as a model of urban renewal, there are long stretches of the city where the vacant lots--and an alarming number of closed storefronts--form a picture of economic distress.

Given the many promises made by corporate and municipal leaders in the heady days and months after the riots, some community leaders say they feel betrayed.

"Serving the poor is not the soup of the day anymore," said Brenda Shockley of Youth Fair Chance, which used a federal grant to establish a social-service center on a riot-scarred block of South Vermont Avenue.

"They say it takes a village to raise a child," said Shockley, whose grant is soon to run out. "But this village is on its own."

Tension Remains

A tour through the riot zone, five years after the last Molotov cocktail was thrown and the last national guardsman went home, reveals a city much like the one that broke into a three-day explosion of protest, violence and destruction.

At one of the empty properties in Mid-City, the anger and economic inequalities that fueled the riots remain raw and vivid.

"There isn't work and there's a lot of tension here," said Jose Tobar, a Guatemalan immigrant day laborer as he stood with about 20 men near the ruins of a construction supply store on Pico Boulevard.

All that remains of the store is a bare concrete rectangle and a tall sign proclaiming "Olympia Building Supply." City records show that the business was severely damaged in the 1992 riots and later demolished. But the ghost of the edifice continues to draw several dozen men who gather every morning in search of work.

"For every one day we work, there are six days we don't and we just stand here," said Alberto Bonilla, a native of Honduras.

When a reporter approached one group of Latino workers at the site, some of the men responded with threats. One lobbed a small rock.

"Next time, bring us some food!" one yelled.

A few miles to the south, squatters recently parked their trailers on a large Florence Avenue lot, a muddy patch of ground, between puddles of water. A month later, after the last of the winter rains, they were gone.

On Hooper Avenue near Watts, Latino children play soccer on the site of a liquor store parking lot, below a rusty post and a shattered plastic sign.

A man with a weed trimmer works the cracks on the floor of what had been an old soul-food restaurant on Compton Avenue. The braced walls of the restaurant remain standing, but clouds and blue sky shine through where the ceiling used to be.

On Western Avenue, across the street from a pair of vacant lots, the words "Black Owned" are still spray-painted on the steel shutters of a closed storefront, an erstwhile appliance repair shop. The message protected the store against arsonists five years ago, but not against the bad memories and the hard times that followed.

The appliance repair shop has since relocated to Temecula.

"I have children, you know, and L.A. is like a war zone," said its owner, Nickii Buchman, explaining her decision to move. "I don't want them to grow up in that environment."

Downward Spiral

On many South Los Angeles commercial strips, the vacant lots remaining from the 1992 riots are only a fraction of the empty parcels and shuttered businesses resulting from decades of economic stagnation.

This is the case along South Avalon Boulevard, near the southeastern edge of the riot zone. Two stores burned down near 94th Street, including the Greater Avalon Market. But there also are a dozen vacant lots and closed storefronts along a half-mile stretch of Avalon that were not damaged in the riots.

Joe Voldase began working at his Avalon Boulevard barbershop in 1967. He bought it in 1971.

Across the street, the Greater Avalon once catered to young migrant families from Texas and Louisiana and provided a steady source of customers, husbands who came in for a trim while their wives shopped. On his side of the street, there was once a tailor, a shoe repair shop and a cleaners.

Even before the riots in 1992, "Everyone started going out of business," Voldase said. When the market burned down after a frenzy of looting, it was only the exclamation point at the end of the neighborhood's long downward spiral.

"There's no walk-in customers anymore, just my regular customers, retired people," he said. "I don't think I'm going to be here much longer."

Unlike the 1965 Watts riot, the destruction of 1992 was dispersed across a huge swath of city stretching from Long Beach to Hollywood.

In more well-off neighborhoods north of the Santa Monica Freeway, most riot-scarred properties have been rebuilt.

In Hollywood, all of the 19 buildings that were damaged or destroyed have been replaced. So have the 11 riot-damaged buildings on Wilshire Boulevard.

However, rebuilding has proceeded at a much slower pace in the poorer areas of the riot zone.

Along a five-mile stretch of Vermont Avenue from Pico-Union through South-Central, there are 37 empty properties, the most dramatic a cluster of lots at the intersection with Manchester Avenue where the empty basements of a block of shops form an especially grim, bombed-out landscape.

"The kind of shopping people find attractive on the Westside or San Fernando Valley, you just can't build in South-Central Los Angeles," said Tom Larson, an economics professor at Cal State L.A. who conducted a study on the lots for Rebuild LA, the private riot recovery agency later renamed RLA. "Some of these lots are just not economically viable."

Indeed, a variety of economic and social factors have slowed the rebuilding in South-Central and Pico-Union, ranging from the size of the lots and the purchasing power of local residents, to the expectations and the emotional state of the landowners themselves.

In one sense, the fate of commercial strips like those on Avalon and Vermont is no different from those of many Southland neighborhoods, where old shopping districts have gone to seed as large, regional malls claimed the bulk of consumers.

In South Los Angeles, the trend was accelerated by the social changes of the 1960s. When restrictive covenants in property deeds were outlawed in 1963--ending de facto segregation--untold numbers of middle-class black families moved away from the old neighborhoods.

Moreover, the closure of several nearby industrial plants in the 1970s and '80s meant the loss of thousands of well-paying jobs.

In the neighborhood where Joe Voldase operates his barbershop, the median family income today is just $17,500, about half the median income for the city as a whole.

"Why would a business want to build in South-Central if people are too poor to buy their products?" said Alice Salinas of the Esperanza Housing Corp.

In such a business climate, private investors are skittish and government grants can play a key role in making commercial development work.

The Paradise Baptist Church on South Figueroa Street turned to developer Thad Williams to help build on the former site of a torched furniture store, land the church purchased after the riots.

Williams said his efforts have run into a series of bureaucratic and financial obstacles.

"We all seem to go through the same funnels for money, either [city] housing funds or redevelopment funds, and those funds are dwindling," he said.

For other prospective developers, there is the problem of acquiring the property itself.

"You have people who own [vacant] property and just sit on it," said Anthony Scott of the Dunbar Economic Development Corp.

From the window of his office in the historic Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, Scott can look out and see one such vacant lot, the site of a liquor store burned during the 1992 riot. Scott has been stymied in his efforts to buy the lot and add it to the Dunbar's complex of commercial development and affordable housing.

"The person that owns this site refused to sell so it just sits there," he said. "It's an eyesore, a blight on the community."

The owner of the lot could not be reached for comment.

Many of the remaining vacant lots are simply too small for a successful business, planners say. On the historic section of Central Avenue, a commercial lot can be just 120 feet deep, or about 7,000 square feet.

Where larger lots are available, they can attract corporate investors. Smart & Final rebuilt one burned-out store at Vermont and 81st Street and also built seven new stores in or near the riot zone.

"Our customers are concentrated in those areas," said Leanne Reynolds, a company spokeswoman. "Even if there are higher risks associated with [the area], there is still higher sales potential."

But for a developer or businessman with less money to risk, building on the parcels is a risky proposition. Some waited for government to help, believing that RLA would pour "a lot of money and a lot of opportunities" into the community, raising the value of their land, Scott said.

No bonanza ever materialized.

For one South-Central entrepreneur, the years after the riots have been filled with a series of painful financial and emotional calculations. Sitting on the empty land, once the site of a family business, seems to be the only alternative.

"The business was lost, my clientele went to other places," said the owner, who requested anonymity. "I was terribly underinsured. Have you ever heard of a building burning to the ground in Los Angeles with a fire station a block away?" The offers he got for the land were "laughable." It seemed people were trying to "steal the land."

Beyond economics, there was the trauma of the loss itself, the memory of seeing his business go up in flames on the first night of the riots.

"My father built that building," he said. "I watched him build it as a child. . . . There were too many memories fresh in my mind."

Chain-Link Fences

For the time being, all that city government requires of the owners is to keep the lots fenced off and clean of debris. Chain-link fences have become an ubiquitous feature along many commercial strips, as have the legion of small signs attached to them, each advertising the services of a handyman or business.

Many of the lots have been converted to parking lots or junkyards.

Old washing machines, television sets and refrigerators cover the former site of a liquor store on South Main Street. A group of Latino immigrants uses the lot to collect used items from parishioners at the evangelical church next door. The items are then donated or sold to the needy.

"This was a liquor store, it belonged to a Korean. It was burned down," said Carlos Mendez Vasquez, who ate lunch at the site with a friend. "He owned another one, but [the looters] couldn't burn that one. A guy with a big can of gas tried to set it on fire, but it wouldn't burn."

A few blocks south along Main, at the intersection with Century Boulevard, Walter Charlton, 71, parks his van and sets up shop every morning at the site of a vanquished restaurant. Charlton attaches one end of a tarpaulin tent to his van, and the other to the restaurant's old sign, a hand-painted picture of steam rising from a bowl of soup.

"Everybody knows me, I'm the Doll Man," Charlton says. He sells black Raggedy Ann dolls from the vacant lot, and assembles them there too with his wife, working from two sewing machines attached to a generator in his van.

Not long ago, a troubled young man parked his van on the vacant lot and slept there, Charlton says. He was stabbed to death a few blocks away.

"He seemed like a nice guy, but he lived the fast life," Charlton says. "If we didn't get out of here at dark, you'd find us lying here too when you came back."

With that, Charlton returns to his business, selling dolls from the street corner. When night falls he packs up his van, leaving behind the empty asphalt square and the concrete floors where soup was once served.

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