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After L.A. Riots, Leaders Failed To Rebuild A Broken City


This week, we've been marking the 25th anniversary of the LA riots. The riots spread through the city after four police officers were acquitted for beating Rodney King, a black motorist. The violence and destruction lasted five days. More than 50 people died. Nearly 6,000 people were arrested for arson and looting, and the estimated property damage was over $1 billion.


Our co-host Kelly McEvers is visiting some key spots in Los Angeles to hear about what happened in 1992 and what's happened in the years that followed. Today, she catches up with NPR's Sonari Glinton.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So Rodeo and Crenshaw is where we are.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Yes. Here is where one of the few grocery stores that served Central Los Angeles was located. It burned down in the riots.

MCEVERS: And the mayor says we want the business community to come in and help us rebuild.

GLINTON: That became Rebuild LA.

MCEVERS: And what happened? I don't see a major grocery store here.

GLINTON: As we look, we don't necessarily see that much investment, but we see plans that were laid down then. We have the metro that's coming in.

MCEVERS: Public transportation.

GLINTON: Yeah. But still, some of the basic issues - whether or not we have a grocery store in this community and enough of them - you can imagine why all these problems are difficult to solve because LA is unusual, and the riots are one part of a story that go back at least a hundred years.

MCEVERS: Let's listen to your story.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on. Bring it. Bring it. Bring it. That's right. Bring it.

GLINTON: We start in the day, April 29, 1992. Tom Bradley is one of the nation's first black mayors and one of the most popular of any color. He'd been in office for 20 years. You can say part of Bradley's immense success and political brand was being friendly to business and not scaring the white community. But on this day, his city was in flames. No, actually, not just his city, his neighborhood, his political base. So in the twilight of this historic career, Tom Bradley seemed determined not to let the riots be his legacy. So he reached out for help.

PETER UEBERROTH: So he called me. I was driving on the Coast Highway here right by the ocean. And I interrupted him by saying, Mayor, I know it's got to be agony what's going on. He said, just be quiet. I need your help.

GLINTON: Peter Ueberroth was Tom Bradley's go-to guy in the business world. Bradley had tapped Ueberroth to run LA's successful bid for the 1984 Olympics. Those games cemented Tom Bradley's legacy and made Ueberroth a very, very rich man. So when the mayor called, Ueberroth gave him that typical whatever you need, Mr. Mayor. You have my full support, sir. Oh, you need help? I can be there first thing tomorrow morning.

UEBERROTH: And he said, no, I have a better idea. Our helicopter has you in its sight. And so I pulled off the side of the road, and the helicopter landed on the Coast Highway here, and all the cars stopped in both directions and dust went all everywhere. I got on the helicopter, and it took me in a route where they weren't shooting at the helicopters where they could get back in, and I met with him that first day.

GLINTON: That first day, that first phone call, was the origin of what would be called Rebuild LA. Think the Marshall Plan for downtown Los Angeles and South Central, though instead of the U.S. giving money to rebuild Europe, private business money would be directed to the rebuild efforts. And Bradley gave a very basic instruction on that day.

UEBERROTH: He said I'd like private-sector people coming in here and trying to solve these problems and raise some money, do something. Make it happen.

GLINTON: Make it happen. That was Ueberroth's charge. Break down the barriers and red tape to get money and investment into the community. A thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed - a billion dollars' worth of property loss. And as the riots abated and the National Guard left, many in the community looked to Rebuild LA as, well, maybe the economic cavalry is coming. So if we get into the NPR wayback machine and set the dial for 1992, you can hear the hopefulness in the community's response.


TOM BRADLEY: We have to begin to think beyond the end of this incident and to what we can do to rebuild.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Father, take these hands and help us build a new city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Five to 10 years from now, this place is going to be so nice. All this down here is going to be black-owned business. She going to have a nail shop. She going to have a beauty shop. It's going to be our turn. It's our turn now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If you start to transfer the ownership of the community to the community, everybody will prosper.

GLINTON: Expectations were high, says John Mack, who is the head of the Urban League during the riots and eventually a part of Rebuild LA.

JOHN MACK: Once I got over my anger behind the gang beating, you know, I was beginning to feel cautiously optimistic that maybe we can get some things done.

GLINTON: Mack joined in the hope that his long list of economic issues, in addition to police reform, would be tackled. Lack of retail, jobs, affordable housing, investment and transportation - these had been problems in South Central since at least before silent movies and the oil boom that put LA on the map. Rebuild LA was supposed to act as a funnel for money, talent and expertise into the inner city. The organization directed private money to the burned out neighborhoods, building on the model of the 1984 Olympics. Though, that was a bit of magical thinking. John Mack says the leaders of Rebuild LA were well-intentioned but naive.

MACK: I said, Peter (ph), this is not the Olympics. You're not going to have everybody coming, running around the flag (laughter) you know? It's not going to be that easy (laughter). You've got a different kind of challenge here (laughter).

GLINTON: There were problems from the very beginning. After a race riot, the leaders of this economic cavalry were essentially rich, white men. Ueberroth lived in Newport Beach in Orange County, 40 minutes and a universe away from South Central. There were months of fighting about who'd be on the board, and when the news media lost interest, Mack says so did many in the business community.

MACK: And some promises were made. You know, press conferences were held. The Vons supermarket, leadership at the time, made a pledge that they were going to build 10 or 12 supermarkets strategically throughout the community. One was built.

GLINTON: Eventually Rebuild LA fizzled and was disbanded. Many think that makes it a failure, but it did have an influence.

PETER MOSKOWITZ: So I think the LA riots were one of those traumatic events, like Hurricane Katrina was in New Orleans or the bankruptcy was in Detroit, that essentially reconfigured how a neighborhood could be seen by those with power and money.

GLINTON: Peter Moskowitz is the author of "How To Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality, And The Fight For The Neighborhood." He says out of the destruction of the riots came economic opportunity for some in the business world. Mayor Bradley's response created, though, a template.

MOSKOWITZ: So after the LA riots, there was a lot of vacant storefronts. There was a lot of property damage. There was a lot of fear about the inner city, and that essentially allowed property developers to snap up properties for cheap.

GLINTON: John Mack, formerly of the Urban League, says many of the problems Rebuild LA was trying to address are 100-year-old, 200-year-old problems that he says take more than just goodwill from business leaders.

MACK: You have to be there for the long haul. And let's face it. The opposition, you can't let folk outwork you because you know folk who don't want to do the right thing are on duty all the time.

GLINTON: John Mack says Los Angeles didn't get a whole lot from Rebuild LA, but he says the silver lining is that other cities learned from the experience - hopefully. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.


Sonari Glinton
Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.