For more than two weeks in the spring of 1992, L.A. Weekly photographer Ted Soqui put his life at risk as he drove from one ravaged neighborhood to another to document the fallout of the Los Angeles riots, also known as the Los Angeles Uprising. He spotted torched buildings by following plumes of smoke in the sky. "And there was no shortage of smoke," Soqui says, "dark smoke."
He rephotographed those sites 20 years later, standing in the very same locations where he'd stood in 1992. Soqui's before-and-after imagery gives silent testament to how much has changed - and how little.
The riots erupted after a police brutality trial in which a jury acquitted Los Angeles Police Department officers Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell on charges of excessive use of force against Rodney King. The previous year, a videotape broadcast around the world had shown a belligerent King, pulled over after a wild chase in which he drove up to 80 mph on surface streets, fighting officers as they'd tried to pin him down - and the officers whacking him with their batons more than 50 times.
When the mostly white jury let the officers off at 3:15 p.m. on April 29, the first violence erupted at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in South L.A. In a harrowing video seen by millions on TV, white trucker Reginald Denny was driving by in his big rig when he was yanked from its cab by a group of black men, then bashed in the head with a claw hammer, a brick and an oxygen tank, nearly killing him and leaving him with permanent brain damage.
Yet when Police Chief Daryl Gates got word of the growing violence, he refused to leave a police political fundraiser in Brentwood. LAPD was unprepared and lost control of the streets in South Los Angeles, Koreatown, Hollywood, Mid-City, Pico-Union and the Civic Center itself. Rioters ran into the Los Angeles Times' building to rip equipment off desks, palm trees blazed in the night skies near Dodger Stadium, and iconic shops such as Frederick's of Hollywood were looted until bare. The U.S. Army, Marines and National Guard were called in. The toll: some 2,000 people injured and more than 50 killed; more than 1,100 buildings damaged; more than 3,000 fires set. Property damage was set at $1 billion.
The California Economic Development Department had at the time painted a bleak picture of L.A.'s labor market as "experiencing one of the most severe recessions of the postwar era." Between April 1991 and April 1992, 108,000 local jobs vanished. Black and Latino communities were hard hit, with a combined 29.7 percent in poverty and more than 13 percent unemployed.
Perhaps worse, L.A. was in the throes of a vicious era of street violence, and a years-long bloodbath was unfolding in U.S. cities. Driven by armed gangbangers and violent crack and PCP dealers, the mayhem in L.A. produced 1,025 murders in 1991 and 1,092 in 1992 (there were 612 in 2011). It wasn't safe to walk in South L.A. in the afternoon - that's when armed teenagers got out of school.
The aging mayor, Tom Bradley, widely seen as tired and burned out, nevertheless worked hard with top business leaders after the riots to create Rebuild Los Angeles, a group that hoped to lure billions of dollars of corporate investment to South L.A., the worst-hit area.
Few of Rebuild L.A.'s plans came to be, but its most clear achievement was that it managed to clear away the vast, depressing rubble left by hundreds of destroyed buildings. The biggest private success story was thanks to Lakers basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who in 1995 built a movie theater complex in South L.A.
It wasn't just businesses and investors who rejected South L.A. after the riots. As L.A. Weekly reported in 1993, black families ramped up the "black flight" from L.A. that had started in the previous decade. Some 56,000 African-Americans fled L.A. between 1980 and 1990. Cal State Northridge researchers found that the exodus was driven by racial displacement - the mass movement of mostly illegal Latino immigrants into the city's affordable black neighborhoods.
After the riots, between 1992 and 2007, the city's black population dropped by 123,000, as households left for the Inland Empire, close-in suburbs and even for family hometowns in the Deep South. They were running, and being pushed: The city's Latino population grew by more than 450,000 in those years.
In the Los Angeles area, unemployment for Latinos and blacks is worse than in 1992. In 2010, 13.4 percent of Latinos and 19.5 percent of African-Americans were without work.
It's clear in 2012 that some communities Soqui photographed in 1992 have turned a corner, including Koreatown, Pico-Union and Hollywood. Meanwhile, South Los Angeles and others have not. Much as the riots drove out commerce and jobs, the ongoing recession has shuttered storefronts in poor and working-class neighborhoods.
"Not only have these large structural issues never been fixed in Los Angeles," says Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, but "you could make the case things have gotten worse."
Ted Soqui considers Parker Center, the former LAPD headquarters - not the corner of Florence and Normandie - to be the true ground zero of the Los Angeles riots. "The original angst of the riots was geared toward the LAPD," Soqui says. "It wasn't a race war. So the group was more mixed. It was a younger crowd, and black, white and Latino. They surrounded the front of the building."
Bernard Parks, then a deputy chief and now a Los Angeles city councilman, was commanding officer at the combustible scene as 200 angry protesters descended. "You had people trying to take apart Parker Center," remembers Parks, who became LAPD chief five years later. "We spent a number of hours trying to keep people ... from destroying the building."
From his command post inside Parker Center, Parks decided against calling out a huge force. Just 50 cops created a baton-wielding line as protesters ripped the brass lettering off the sign in front of Parker Center and set a parking kiosk on fire.
Parks, who is black, felt "torn" by the anarchy "because you don't want to see your community burn up, but you have to end the problem... I was surprised by the verdict. I thought the actions of the officers were inappropriate, and I articulated it [within LAPD]."
Today, a Buddhist-inspired wind-chime sculpture by Korean artist Sook Jin Jo, Wishing Bells/To Protect and to Serve, sits in place of the destroyed kiosk. Carved into the individual chimes are words such as justice, love, unity and respect, as if Jo is offering up guiding principles for better times.
What the protesters couldn't do in 1992, a new police headquarters built nearby may achieve - empty and decaying, Parker Center may be demolished. The city poured $437 million into the gleaming new Police Administration Bureau headquarters, and an unusual amount of attention went to one aspect of its design - creating security against anything unfolding outside.
Erika Aboites, a 31-year-old handbag designer, was far from the smoke that Soqui photographed as fire blackened the landmark Charles F. Plummer-designed Young's Market Company building at Seventh Street and Union Avenue in the Westlake district.
"I remember being picked up early at school," says Aboites, who lived in Long Beach in 1992. "There was a commotion with parents picking up their kids. Everything was frantic, and I just wondered why everyone was going crazy. I was 11, and I didn't really follow the trial."
Watching TV at home, Aboites got her answer. There was a tense period as she waited for word of her father, who was working up in L.A. as a flooring contractor. He got home without incident.
Today, Aboites lives in a work/live loft with her boyfriend in the restored Young's Market building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. She quit a job in the film industry to design and sell handbags through her company, Yellow Wallpaper Handmade. She chose working-class Westlake four years ago to be closer to the Fashion District downtown.
"There are a lot of families," she says of Westlake, "and it's gotten a lot cleaner. Starbucks and Home Depot opened up nearby, and a cool, hip bar recently opened, which we can walk to. My boyfriend and I started joking that this is going to become the new Silver Lake."
Aboites, who is of Mexican heritage, doesn't feel tension between newcomers like herself and the Latino families who make up 73 percent of Westlake residents. "People are really friendly," she says, but "my boyfriend used to hear some things. He's white."
Westlake's once-intense crime level - 20 years ago, it was a haven for heroin dealing - has plummeted, mirroring most U.S. urban areas. Aboites says her neighbors are great, her rent is affordable and Monty Bar is fun. She just hopes her business takes off.
"It's slow at times," she says. "It can be hard. But I love what I'm doing. I may have to get a part-time job at some point, but I'm not thinking about that right now."
Her sleek, stylish handbags go for $32 to $45. Little by little, she says, business is getting better.
A few hours after the riots started up, Stacey Jenkins drove to West Adams Boulevard to check on her family's business, a private school dedicated to teaching young black children, which was opened by her grandfather in 1983. The school was untouched. But a furniture store next door, photographed as a charred skeleton by Soqui, had been looted and set ablaze. Jenkins, a black woman then in her 20s, couldn't believe it.
"Everyone was walking around with sofas and ovens and refrigerators," Jenkins recalls. "That was the end of the furniture store. It was finished."
Jenkins, who now co-owns the renamed school, Cleophas Oliver Learning Academy, believes the school wasn't "bothered" because "the neighborhood kids went here, and parents probably made sure nothing happened."
The riots in West Adams - which then was heavily black but now has a Latino majority - were devastating to Jenkins. "No one my age had been through something like that," she recalls. "And then to see your neighborhood burned down. It was lot after lot after lot, one burned building after another."
Jenkins believes, "Some [of the rioters] were frustrated, some people were sending a message, and some people were just out to create havoc."
The rioters left permanent scars. Promises were made by Rebuild L.A. and City Hall that relief would come, but in hundreds of cases local stores were never rebuilt, including the furniture store. Now, she says, the tough economy is pinching West Adams, and more homeless people have entered the area.
On a bright note, people seem to get along better, Jenkins says. Even LAPD has changed. "We feel not as apprehensive around the police," says the educator, "and everyone has a ‘picture phone' now, so that makes people, including the police, more aware."
As with most inner cities in the United States, crime is way down in West Adams. Although a horrific shooting in the community recently took the lives of two USC students from China, West Adams has a lower crime rate than nearby Jefferson Park, the Crenshaw District and Mid-City. In 1992, the school was burglarized regularly. Jenkins hasn't had that problem in years. "After the [riots]," she says, "the community pulled together."
Korean immigrant Mavis Ju was five months pregnant with son Andrew when the rioting and looting struck Koreatown. Ju didn't dare leave her apartment, and was shocked to see men trying to protect their stores with guns and rifles. "It was very dangerous," she says today, with Andrew acting as her interpreter.
One of the hundreds of properties in Koreatown set ablaze by rioters was an ugly strip mall at Sixth Street and Western Avenue. Filled with Korean-owned businesses, it was a black shell when Soqui took a picture on May 16, 1992.
Two years later, L.A. city planners approved an equally ugly strip mall to replace the old one. Ju, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1988, opened Hair Design Club on the second floor. But not everyone stayed in Koreatown, an extremely dense, half-Latino, one-third Asian district with 42,600 people per square mile. "Some of my friends moved out of the neighborhood," she explains. "There was no work, and it was still dangerous. They lived with relatives somewhere else."
Koreatown has undergone a dramatic transformation since the riots. Across the street from the ugly strip mall is a sleek, massive condominium complex built in 2009. A Metro subway station opened at nearby Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue in 1996. Koreatown's building boom was badly hampered by the recession, but it is starting to hum again.
Ju feels safe. Even during the chaos of Sa-I-Gu, which translates as "4/29" and is used in L.A.'s Korean community the same way people say "9/11," Ju never regretted moving to the United States. "It is a free country," she says. "I knew I could do business here."
Ju then politely asks if she can get back to work. A client is waiting for a haircut.
In 1987, Matt B. Brown, then 17, decided to move to Hollywood from the state of Washington to pursue his dream of being a rock star. Shopping at the Ross Dress for Less on Sunset at La Brea recently, Brown remembers how the rioters in 1992 clawed northward into Hollywood, to the very spot where the Ross outlet now stands.
A Silo electronics store stood there in 1992, and it was all but emptied by looters the first night of the riots. Armed guards dressed like cops were sent, belatedly, to protect the big building.
"It was rich versus poor," Brown says. "They came right up La Brea, and every race was looting. It was poor people, poor people who needed things, taking furniture and electronics. It started out about police brutality, and then it turned into a free-for-all."
One night during the riots, "The 7-Eleven was open, so I walked over and no one bothered me," recalls the musician, who is white. "The National Guard was here, and they were harassing African-Americans. It wasn't right. I'm for equality."
Brown has seen Hollywood change for the better since then. Crime has fallen dramatically nationally and Hollywood, which in 1992 was filled with prostitutes and drug dealers, has benefited from the trend. While big-city mayors and police chiefs around the country take credit, nobody really knows why U.S. cities have far less crime than 20 years ago.
Billions of dollars in public Community Redevelopment Agency and other funds have financed posh apartments and new and renovated hotels in Hollywood. City-financed gentrification has been so successful that thousands of low-income Latinos have been pushed out and professionals with few or no kids have moved in. The U.S. Census recorded this phenomenon as a steep population drop of 15,000.
"It used to be a crack neighborhood," says Brown, now 42. "But they dumped money into the Hollywood & Highland mall, and now there's cops and cameras everywhere. It's cleaned up, but it's just about the mall and money."
At the Sir Graham Barber Shop in faded Washington Square Market shopping center, Antonio Inda watches popular evangelical pastor Ron Phillips on a wide-screen TV as he awaits customers. His mother, who owns the Washington Boulevard shop with him and his brother, is working in a side room. When the riots hit, Inda, who is Latino, was 16 and lived just a few blocks from the shop he owns today.
Inda and his family watched it on TV. One big store that burned was an auto parts business in Washington Square Market. "I was watching it on the news," he says, "and the next thing you know, it started getting crazy. The trial was unfair, but I didn't agree with the riots. I thought people were going too far. It destroyed the neighborhood."
After graduating from high school, Inda took jobs in construction, even going out of state for work. "It was pretty tough," he says. "Some days you didn't get work, and I went to Nebraska [for a job]. Then I came back, and my mom said I should try barbering. I love it."
For a while, the large parking lot outside his barber shop was a prime hangout for gang members. "Sometimes it was pretty crazy," Inda says, "but now it's pretty calm. The cops started coming by and cleaning it up little by little. But we still need more cops."
The Arlington Heights neighborhood, mostly black and Latino, has a gang problem, Inda says, and far too many people are out of work thanks to the persisting recession in L.A. Moreover, he believes that black-brown race relations are much worse than when he was a boy.
"When I was growing up," Inda says, "there wasn't too much Hispanics and blacks going after each other. That's a major change. I love everybody, but I have to be careful about where I go - I don't feel welcome in some neighborhoods. It's not safe for me."
Inda wants his three teenagers to have a future free of the crime he's seen in Arlington Heights and in the parking lot outside his shop. "I'm trying to guide them to take the right path," he says. "To have a good life and not to run in the streets. To get them to go to college."
On April 29, Robert Portillo, then a curator at UCLA, was in Texas giving a lecture to the American Musical Instrument Society. He didn't know about the riots when he called his wife, Kathy, at home. At that moment, just below their home perched on a small bluff in Mid-City, rioters were breaking into stores and setting buildings ablaze at the run-down Mid-Town shopping center on Pico Boulevard.
"All I could hear was the helicopters" drowning out Kathy's voice, Portillo recalls. "We were shouting at each other. … She told me to turn on the television. I couldn't believe what I saw. My neighborhood was on TV - and under siege."
Recalls Kathy: "There were guys with guns on top of the hardware store, trying to defend it" from rioters. "There were gunshots for about two hours."
The working- and middle-class neighborhood was black, white and to a lesser degree Asian. "It was pretty good," Portillo says. "Pretty quiet."
But after the riots, some longtime black residents fled, to be replaced mostly by Mexican-American families. Gangs and graffiti began appearing.
The Portillos think race relations have gotten better in Los Angeles, but economic inequality has only gotten worse. Says Kathy, "You can see [a riot] happening again. It's more about class, and it's valid. It really is."
Promises by city leaders to revitalize the ravaged Mid-Town center turned out to be hot air. Then, 19 years after the shopping center was burned, City Hall provided Community Redevelopment Agency funds to help woo a developer to the area - CIM Group, which planned a Lowe's Home Improvement Center and other businesses at the newly named Midtown Crossing.
But excited residents were stunned when the structure rose far higher than the height limit promised by the city, wiping out the neighborhood's views of L.A., causing home values to plummet and creating a vast wall that bounces never-ending traffic noise into once-quiet homes. Some are glad to see businesses come in. Others see the project as poisonous. "We now have a City Council that thinks more about business owners and less about the constituents they're supposed to serve," Portillo says. "We have a mayor who's more concerned about stepping stones for his political future."
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School on Olympic Boulevard in the Pico-Union district near downtown, was sitting in her office writing an op-ed piece about the Rodney King verdict for the Los Angeles Times when a colleague asked if she smelled smoke. They didn't realize rioters had set fire to an apartment building across the street, whose charred remains Soqui later photographed.
"I didn't notice [the smoke] until he said something," Levenson recalls. "We looked at each other and I said, 'Let's make a run for it.' " She drove "through three blocks of chaos" and escaped using the 110 freeway.
The ruins of that gutted building, like so many destroyed by rioters, became a vacant lot that dragged down the corner of Albany and Olympic for years. Finally, in 2005, the dreary lot became home to a crisp, clean Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school, the Olympic Primary Center.
Levenson, who is white, was on the politically appointed Webster Commission, which examined why the riots took place. "I learned facts that chilled me to the bone," she says. "How the police had basically abandoned the city."
After the riots, Pico-Union couldn't rebound. About a decade later, new apartment complexes finally appeared, followed by the new school. In the adjacent downtown area, on the other side of the 110 freeway, a 5-star Ritz-Carlton hotel opened in 2010 at the L.A. Live complex.
Says Levenson, "If you told me there would be a Ritz-Carlton down the block, I would have thought you were insane."
Levenson starts each new term of her criminal law class by asking students why the criminal justice system is so important. After they come up with various answers, she shows them old news footage of the 1992 riots. "They're shocked when they see it," she says. She wants students to understand that a fair criminal justice system can help avoid six days of looting and rioting, more than 50 deaths - and the deaths of entire neighborhoods.
Donette O'Neal, a supervising instructor at the Universal College of Beauty in the Vermont Knolls district of South Los Angeles, was 18 and living with her mother in Burbank as she watched the city go up in flames. She does not believe the riots were a political statement, whether "rich versus poor" or "minorities versus the LAPD."
"It was stupid to me," says O'Neal, as she begins to wind down her long workday at the beauty school, where students learn about skin and hair care and how to talk with clients. "I get up and go to work every day for my kids. I don't care if the rich are getting richer. Some people just want to get something for nothing - and that's not just black people.
"It's like my mother always told me: Two wrongs don't make a right."
O'Neal has a good job 16 blocks from where the riots began. In 1992, though, a Korean-owned furniture store next door was set ablaze and the flames spread to the building that housed the beauty school. Unlike so many businesses, the school was rebuilt within a year thanks to the persistence of owner John Williams.
O'Neal steps from behind the front counter where she greets people, looking for a book of meditations her workplace prayer group reads before starting the day. She reads a passage aloud.
"The need to be right and meet discord head-on begins within," O'Neal says. "It is a need that stems from powerlessness, unworthiness and a lack of love. It shows up in life as arguments and confrontations. When we have peace in our hearts and minds, we draw peace into our lives. ... When we let go of the need to prove to ourselves, nothing and no one can disturb the quiet and peace of our minds."
O'Neal, who is black, doesn't consider herself a "political person." She puts down the prayer book and looks outside, laughing over a question about how things are going in South L.A. "People are crazy," she says with a smile. "This area - I haven't seen a street cleaner come through this street in I don't know how long. Years! People go to the liquor store [nearby] and drink on the corner. Then they come in here, and I have to kick them out.
"It's not real bad, though."
Once mostly black, South L.A. is now 54 percent Latino and 42 percent black. The immediate area seems safe during the day, but, she notes with a laugh, "I wouldn't be out here when it gets dark."
O'Neal says people need to take more initiative in finding work in the still-shattered local economy. "I thank God for having my job," she says, "but a lot of people don't know how to work hard to get a job."
O'Neal locks up the beauty school and walks to her car on Vermont. Some folks sit on the corner, just watching cars go by. She leaves before nightfall.
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