South L.A.'s growing pain

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years after the 1992 riots, South Los Angeles has seen dramatic population shifts -- but frustratingly little economic progress.

Latinos are a growing presence in a community that was once the center of African American life. Many middle-class black and Latino families have moved out of the area for better schools and safer streets. Those remaining are disproportionately poorer and have fewer job skills.

New grocery stores have opened since the riots -- a longtime goal of residents and activists. Yet the area still suffers the region’s highest unemployment and underemployment rates.

By almost any economic measure, South Los Angeles has lost ground compared with the city and county. The area, bordered roughly by the Santa Monica and Century freeways between Alameda Boulevard and west to the city limits, grew jobs by only 0.4% from 1993 to 2005, versus 24.6% growth for L.A. County as a whole, according to the state Employment Development Department. The area’s average wage grew 21.3% in that period, versus 47.3% for the county.

Grandiose plans to revive the community as a hub for manufacturing and other service-sector industries are largely unrealized. With so few jobs in the area, many residents commute to low-paying service jobs as maids in airport-area hotels, as day laborers on the Westside or as security guards.


Fourteen percent of the city’s labor force now lives in South Los Angeles, but only 3% of jobs in the formal economy are located there, said Dan Flaming, president of the Los Angeles-based Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based research group. Many others work in the informal “underground” economy, he said, for employers that don’t offer benefits or workers’ compensation.

The lack of opportunities in the area prompted Raul Gaona, 32, to commute to Van Nuys for a job with a fencing company.

South Los Angeles resident Gregory Talley, a 48-year-old security guard who works the graveyard shift at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, said “It’s hard to get a good job, everybody’s downsizing.”

There are some positives. Local activists credit Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with renewing interest in the area by sparking construction of several shopping centers and housing units. They also point to more projects in the pipeline. Organizers of a job fair slated for today, part of a planned “Weekend of Peace,” hope the event draws attention to the community’s labor pool.

Area activists say that lifting a community long mired in poverty and urban blight depends on improved education, housing and business development.

“The Rebuild L.A. claim that the private sector can do it turned out to be hollow,” said Robert Gottlieb, who teaches urban policy at Occidental College, referring to the nonprofit organization formed after the riots to spearhead economic development. “We need to have a much more aggressive role in developing jobs, including public-private partnerships and new industry incubators.”

Manufacturing firms that paid middle-class salaries, once the area’s backbone, have largely disappeared in South L.A. as they have from other cities.

And although some grocery chains have opened new stores in recent years -- including Food 4 Less and Gigante -- other grocery chains and retailers have shut their doors.

Moreover, new grocery clerks earn lower wages than they did before the 2003 Southern California supermarket strike and lockout that involved Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs. And at Food 4 Less, which has opened 11 stores in South Los Angeles since 1992, shoppers bag their own groceries, eliminating those jobs at the checkout counter.

The area now includes stores from Starbucks Corp., Walgreen Co. and other retailers, but still harbors too many liquor stores, abandoned lots and boarded-up buildings, residents complain.

Although the same pattern of slow inner-city job growth has occurred in other major cities, demographic shifts and long-standing residential segregation in Los Angeles have accelerated the decline of poor neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles, according to a study last year by the California Budget Project, a Sacramento-based nonprofit research group.

Many middle-class African American and Latino families have moved to such places as Baldwin Hills, the Inland Empire and Lancaster. From 1990 to 2000, the African American population of San Bernardino County rose 34% and the number of Latino residents surged by 79%, according to census data.

Those who remain in South L.A. have less education and fewer job skills, Flaming said. Forty-five percent of adults in the community do not have high school diplomas, and 37% of those with jobs are considered to be among the state’s working poor, he said.

And more of the residents are Latino. Although experts disagree on the exact numbers, South L.A.'s Latino population has grown dramatically since the 1992 riots, hitting 54% by 2000 versus 38% for African Americans, according to the Los Angeles City Planning Department.

The demographic shifts have created tensions. Local union campaigns to organize janitors and security guards, many of whom live in South Los Angeles, initially fanned distrust between Latinos and African Americans over employment opportunities, said Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union.

The two groups are developing coalitions, he said, “but there have been hard adjustments.”

The riots, which followed acquittals of four police officers charged in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, exacerbated the area’s already severe economic problems, said Madeline Janis, executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

The years that followed saw “a lot of broken promises,” she said. Today’s job fair has a more modest goal: linking residents to better-paying jobs. The event will draw about 40 employers, including Fox Entertainment Group, Kaiser Permanente and Wells Fargo & Co., to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles. Organizers expect as many as 500 job seekers.

First AME, which was a key gathering place during the riots, decided on the job fair because residents badly need “jobs, food and hope,” said Rev. Brenda Lamothe, who helped organize the weekend’s events. South Los Angeles resident Cynthia Fowler, 41, plans to attend the job fair and hopes for a position in health services, “maybe working with elderly people.”

Beyond the job fair, several community and government groups believe that the area’s future is linked to residential and commercial development and luring manufacturing and industrial employers.

Villaraigosa is lobbying to win state bond money for area projects, said Cecilia Estolano, chief executive of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

Estolano said the agency was also pushing for workforce development. That includes education and apprenticeship programs to teach residents skills that will help them land well-paying jobs, and set-asides for local hiring on construction projects and for permanent jobs.

She said previous redevelopment efforts, such as Rebuild L.A., failed to take into account the area’s infrastructure and what Flaming of the Economic Roundtable calls “the strong attachment of the labor force to manufacturing.”

The Alameda Corridor could generate significant new factory jobs, Flaming believes. The 20-mile rail line speeds products worth millions of dollars from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach through South Los Angeles to other communities for assembly or additional manufacturing.

“Why not do more of that [manufacturing] at the base of the distribution system, in South Los Angeles?” he asks.



Wide disparity

L.A. County job growth, ’93-'05

*--* Santa Clarita/Valencia 102.2% Antelope Valley 55.4 Westside 28.7 San Gabriel Valley 27.5 Long Beach/Lakewood (South Gateway) 22.2 East L.A./Eagle Rock 21.9 East San Fernando Valley 21.2 Crenshaw/Mid-City/ Hollywood 17.6 South Bay/LAX 16.0 West San Fernando Valley 15.1 North Gateway 13.6 Central/Downtown L.A. 5.8 South L.A. 0.4


Source: California Employment Development Department



Wage differential

Increase in average wage from 1993 to 2005 in L.A. County

*--* Central/Downtown L.A. 59.1% Westside 57.5 East San Fernando Valley 54.7 South Bay/LAX 54.4 Santa Clarita/Valencia 54.3 Crenshaw/Mid-City/Hollywood 53.1 West San Fernando Valley 48.9 East L.A./Eagle Rock 46.7 San Gabriel Valley 41.3 Long Beach/Lakewood (S. Gateway) 40.6 North Gateway 37.2 Antelope Valley 33.8 South L.A. 21.3


Source: California Employment Development Department