LOS ANGELES – As much as anything, Damien Goodmon recalls the sights and sounds of chaos. His community near Jefferson Boulevard and La Brea Avenue is ablaze in protest and panic – and Goodmon, then 10, is struggling to make sense of it all.
Twenty-five years later, the grassroots activist and devout urban strategist says he still is.
The 1992 L.A. uprising – a fierce, five-day response to the acquittal of four white police officers who viciously beat black motorist Rodney King – ended in death for 50 people and destruction of more than $1 billion in property damage spread over 50 square miles. Single-handedly placing the urban agenda back in the national spotlight, the rebellion also would signal a defining moment in local black history, an urgent call to the power structure to seriously address the socio-economic needs of South Central that fueled the riots.
Goodman, founder of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition – an advocacy organization for transportation justice – says that call has been largely ignored. A shortage of jobs and economic infrastructure remains. Schools are still substandard. A dearth of goods and services and job-generating institutions like hospitals and office buildings persists.
In other words, the socio-economic conditions that fueled the 1992 riots are pretty much the same as those that sparked the 1965 Watts riots, then the deadliest urban riot in U.S. history. Put another way, 25 years after the Rodney King riots, far too little has changed in South Central, Goodmon says – especially for the black community whose anger over the police verdicts sparked the unrest in the first place and framed the bigger, underlying issues.
“People righteously rebelled in 1992, but we didn’t get too much out of it,” he says. “The decision-makers and elected officials didn’t really ask the question, ‘What do we really need?’ They went to this corporate model of bringing in some retail chains, did a sprinkling of nonprofit housing. That was it.”
While some would debate the details of what South Central gained – and lost – after 1992, many share Goodmon’s view that too little progress has been made in the former riot zones. Although the burned-out lots that once dotted the landscape from Watts to Inglewood have all but disappeared, the large commercial corridors such as Vermont, Western, Normandie and notably Crenshaw continue to struggle, even as other parts of town have flourished.
Most significantly, African Americans in South Central continue to struggle as a group even as their presence has been diminished and diffused by a burgeoning Latino population that has remade demographics in a way that was predicted in 1992.
Then, blacks were roughly half of South Central; today they hover around 30 percent. The percentage of African-Americans in all of Los Angeles has shrunk from about 20 percent 25 years ago to about eight. That has translated into a decrease in black leadership and a decline in focus on issues of racial equality that captured national attention, albeit briefly, in 1992.
The Black Lives Matter movement that started in 2013 helped revive the concerns voiced during the 1992 unrest – about police brutality, economic justice and other social-economic issues – but it has been somewhat eclipsed by concerns about immigrant rights that have been threatened by the far-right.
Still, this is nothing new – black people have been impacted by the shifting demographic picture in Los Angeles for a long time, says Valerie Shaw, a longtime City Hall insider and former Board of Public Works commissioner.
Shaw has watched as the power matrix downtown has shifted dramatically. And she suspects that the number of black general managers, commissioners and mayoral staff in City Hall has plunged to its lowest number since before Tom Bradley took office in 1973.
“Black representation means community ties, and access to resources,” she says. “We don’t have that.”
Another dynamic pushing blacks out of the picture is the rising cost of housing and the city’s affordable housing crisis. The irony is that, in some ways, things are better in South Central and Crenshaw because of increasing property values. But that means gentrification – as is happening in Leimert Park – which almost always benefits a new populace that’s more moneyed and less black.
“Given the lack of political clout of black folks in the city, I don’t think there will be a black community in the future,” Shaw says. “The South L.A. of 1992 doesn’t exist. If you’re poor, you just have to leave town.”
Some good news
As dire as her assessment may sound, some developments after 1992 represented good news for black people – and all people. For example:
• Relations between black residents and Korean merchants – a tension that played a major role in the looting and burning of businesses 25 years ago – have eased considerably.
• Fewer liquor stores dot black communities, partly because most of the 200 or so that burned down were never rebuilt.
• The paramilitary-minded, largely white police force under former police chief Daryl Gates is gone, replaced by an LAPD that is much more diverse and, while hardly perfect, has improved community relations.
• The Crenshaw Baldwin-Hills Plaza has been upgraded and has added several boutique restaurants. And the adjacent Marlton Square – formerly Santa Barbara Plaza – is in the early stages of a redevelopment that is decades overdue.
• The Crenshaw-to-LAX light rail line is under construction, a development expected to generate jobs and increased economic activity along the rail line.
But Goodmon, the transportation activist, says construction jobs on that massive public project have gone not to blacks, but to Latinos – an employment conundrum that was an issue in 1992 when activists tried to boost black participation in rebuilding L.A., sometimes via protest, at construction sites.
The economy of inequality of the last decade – which has more sharply defined the haves and have-nots – also has been bad for large-scale economic change in the inner city. Meanwhile, the continued gentrification of Leimert Park likely will take hold in other historically black neighborhoods in Crenshaw and nearby Inglewood as rail lines are built and housing prices soar.
In this scenario, Goodmon says, the missed opportunity of 1992 looms even larger.
“In 2017, black people are less strong in fighting gentrification,” he says, largely due to the failure to seriously invest in those neighborhoods and make them less vulnerable over time. He sees the vulnerability of Leimert Park and the Crenshaw area as a whole – long famous for housing the biggest black middle-class enclave west of the Mississippi – as a worrisome sign for the black communities left in Los Angeles.
“If you can’t fix Crenshaw, what hope is there for South Central, for Vermont and Manchester?” he asks.
Michael Anderson, a 57-year-old architect and developer, agrees. In 1992, Anderson was young, ambitious and idealistic. After the unrest, he devised a comprehensive Crenshaw economic redevelopment plan that sought to bring beautification, retail and employment to the area.
While the plan ultimately got little traction at City Hall, Anderson remains keenly interested in doing projects in Crenshaw and South Central. The area has great potential still, he says, but it isn’t being utilized. And time is running out.
“The thing is, if you’re not growing and modernizing, you’re dying,” he said. “We’ve been the same for 25 years. We had a huge opportunity in ’92 – we got billions in transportation money from the federal government, for instance. But we didn’t capitalize on it.
“Politicians just don’t seem to know how to do economic development. You have to have a plan, something that builds jobs for the future. We’re way behind the eight ball.”
What’s the best hope for the future? Shaw says it’s not politics, but building the kind of civic infrastructure that sustained earlier African-American generations – churches, social clubs, sororities, fraternities and virtually any group or network that strengthens community ties and, as she puts it, “gives us a space to be black.”
Goodmon agrees. He says progress has stalled in black L.A. since the Rodney King riots shook the city and shocked the world 25 years ago. That leaves black residents with only one real option: Look forward to the next 25.
“I would love to have that big-vision focus today,” he says. “I’ve got to hope for that. What else am I supposed to do?”