South-Central LA, Ten Years After the Riots
by Steve Sailer
UPI, April 26, 2002
Ten years ago, the most destructive American riot of the 20th century broke out near the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles.
On April 29, 1992, following the acquittals of most of the policemen who beat Rodney King, a mob of 200 local residents -- fueled by beer looted from Korean-owned liquor stores -- faced off against the 30 LAPD officers. The cops pulled back and the riot spread across much of the city, leaving 54 dead and about $1 billion worth of buildings and merchandise torched or plundered.
Later that day, the intersection was seared into the memories of Americans by horrifying TV news helicopter coverage of Reginald Denny, a long-haired blond truck driver, being pulled from his rig by rioters who caved in his head with a chunk of concrete.
Yet, this neighborhood hardly resembles what people familiar with the dismal big city ghettoes in the East and Midwest would expect for the Ground Zero of a riot.
The residential streets around the infamous intersection consist largely of respectably maintained single-family homes. In fact, some of the blocks display a more pleasing architectural harmony these days than the mansion-laden streets 10 miles to the north in Beverly Hills, where the self-indulgence of the rich has generated a comic hodge-podge of house styles.
Near Florence and Normandie, you can see long rows of small but attractive Spanish style stucco homes painted vivid colors -- purples, greens, blues -- more redolent of San Francisco than of Los Angeles.
The landscaping of the compact yards (which normally include a one-car garage) isn't as baroquely lush as in the wealthy white districts. Yet, lawns are kept neat, and here and there fuchsia bougainvilleas bloom in tropical profusion.
The cars parked in the driveways tend to be sensible compacts. There are some junkers, but virtually none of the flashy wire-wheeled BMW's and Lincoln Navigators favored by drug dealers.
Since 1992, the national presumption about this neighborhood has been that it is the angry heart of the ghetto. In reality, now that the crack wars have died down, it serves its home-owning African-American residents as a surprisingly quiet bedroom community. It offers them an easy commute to downtown jobs.
The Florence-Normandie neighborhood has long been one of the more relatively well-to-do regions in South Central Los Angeles. In the census tract stretching south from Florence, for example, five of every eight residences are owner-occupied. Still, even the poorer of the traditionally black neighborhoods of Los Angeles seldom fit national stereotypes of what ghettoes look like.
A native of Chicago's West Side, who as a child witnessed its 1968 riot from her living room window, exclaimed, "I was really shocked when I first came to L.A. and saw the places where the 1965 Watts riot and the 1992 riot had started. They looked so suburban. I always assumed these were slums full of public housing high-rises like Cabrini Green in Chicago, with lots of broken elevators and dark hallways for you to get mugged in. I always figured the Watts Towers were housing projects like that. They turned out to be works of art." These are lovely decorative structures built by Watts folk artist Simon Rodia out of rubble and junk.
"Mostly I saw street after street of cute little houses with yards," continued the Chicagoan, who wished to remain anonymous. "No wonder you always heard about so many 'drive-by' shootings out there during the crack wars. Just like everything else in L.A., it must have been too far to walk."
The Florence-Normandie district is becoming more densely crowded, and real estate values are rising, as Hispanics (often Central American immigrants) move in. The Latino population in the census tract south of Florence doubled from 1990 to 2000, while the black population dropped by 12 percent. Blacks now comprise 62 percent of the tract, compared to 35 percent for Hispanics.
Geographically, L.A.'s African-American community is being squeezed between the irresistible force of the Hispanics spilling out of their traditional neighborhoods to the east and the immovable object of the expensive white neighborhoods along the beaches to the west.
Around Florence and Normandie, blacks and Hispanics often live side by side, but language and cultural gaps keep them from talking much. The census found very few inter-ethnic couples.
The Hispanics are equally divided between males and females, but black women outnumber black men by a dramatic 47 percent. That's nearly a 3-to-2 ratio.
In contrast to the pleasant side streets, the commercial boulevards of Florence and Normandie are economically depressed and psychologically depressing. They are dominated by unprepossessing establishments doing a desultory business in hair and nail care, party supplies, burglar alarms, auto parts and sermons.
Much of the entrepreneurial energy of the neighborhood goes into religion. In one stretch of five storefronts, four were tiny black churches.
Nonetheless, substantial progress repairing the riot damage has occurred. No burned-out hulks remain. Nor are there many boarded-up buildings, vacant lots, or even vacant shops. Graffiti is probably less prevalent here now than it was in white neighborhoods during the worst of last decade's "tagging" fad.
In contrast, 10 years after the 1965 riots, Watts' commercial streets were in much worse shape, with numerous lots still empty. (Watts has since become all Hispanic.)
One of the most common complaints of South Central residents is a lack of supermarkets, but this area is blessed with a decent one nearby, which offers a fine fresh produce section.
One of the most memorable images of the riots was Korean merchants firing handguns at a black mob intent on burning down their stores in a racist pogrom. Today, there are still Korean merchants operating in the neighborhood, although Hispanics have been replacing them. Even now, it's common to see straight-haired Korean owners of beauty supply stores helping their black women customers choose from amongst a vast array of hair-relaxing products.
According to the census, zero Koreans live in the tract of 4,000 people; but that's down from only three in 1990.
Following the fires, community activists succeeded in keeping many Korean-owned liquor stores from being rebuilt. They felt that the pre-riot proliferation of such stores undermined the sobriety of residents. Now, you'd probably have to walk a lot farther to buy one of the bottles of $1.99 fortified wine that the remaining liquor stores stock in abundance. There are many times more churches than liquor stores near Florence and Normandie.