When the riots struck in 1992, South Los Angeles was mostly composed of poor and working-class neighborhoods. The community south of the 10 freeway was trying to recover from the 1980s crack epidemic and from disappearing manufacturing jobs that had supported families and sustained homeownership for decades.
The predominantly black area also was seeing a huge influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, following the takeover by Korean-Americans (underway since the 1970s) of the majority of the area's liquor stores and food markets. Relations between all three groups were already tense when the riots erupted on April 29, 1992.
That doesn't mean that the area was a wasteland. The lawns were manicured, the single-family homes were well kept, and there was a sense of community pride.
Here are five ways the area has changed since the riots:
5. The name has changed.
In 1992 the area was called South-Central L.A. — and the constant airing of TV news footage of beatings, looting and fires permanently associated the name with crime. “Anything bad happens, you get on TV, and the first thing you say was 'South Central,'” resident Helen Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “The people suffering from the South-Central stereotypes that hung over their neighborhoods for years like a permanent marine layer certainly had a right to the name change,” former Weekly journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote at around the same time. That was the year the City Council finally made “South L.A.” official and put “South-Central” out to pasture.
4. Korean-American stores are fewer and farther between.
The unrest in South L.A. was presaged by years of tension between African-Americans and a wave of Korean immigrants who opened liquor, grocery and wig stores in the community. Five months before the riots, South L.A. store owner Soon Ja Du received probation after being convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting a 15-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, who she believed was trying to steal orange juice. The black community was enraged. During the riots, many Korean businesses were specifically targeted by looters and arsonists, and some entrepreneurs spray-painted “black-owned” on their shops in an attempt to spare them any damage. After the unrest the sides came together in a remarkable period of friendship, cooperation and mutual respect, but the generation that opened those stores is dying off, and the U.S.-born children of those immigrants aren't interested in spending their lives behind a cash register. Younger Korean-Americans and Korean immigrants are more interested in franchises or in careers as professionals, says Edward T. Chang, director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at UC Riverside. “In the '80s and '90s, a majority of mom 'n' pop stores in South L.A. were owned by Korean immigrants,” he says. “Now it's very diverse, and Latinos and Southeast Asians have moved in.”
3. Latinos have moved in.
The massive wave of south-of-the-border immigration to the United States in the 1990s transformed South L.A. from majority black to majority Latino. The area went from 80 percent black in 1970 to about half African-American in 1992 to nearly two-thirds Latino today. USC demographer Dowell Myers says South L.A. “was already heavily Latino” by the time the unrest struck, and he notes that 51 percent of those arrested for riot-related allegations were Latino. The demographic shift was clear in the years after the riots. There was a bloom of taco trucks, Mexican markets and pupuserias. There hasn't been much economic improvement, however. A recent report by the Russell Sage Foundation concluded that L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods in the 1990s tended to stay that way through the 2010s, regardless of their shifting ethnic demographics.
2. Crime is way down.
With a boost from the riots, which saw more than 50 homicides, 1992 stands as the year with the highest number of murders in Los Angeles County: 2,589. Gangs had blossomed under the 1980s crack cocaine boom, and when the unrest arrived in 1992 it was anarchy on the streets. A post-riot truce in Watts calmed some gang violence, but the 1990s were otherwise some of the highest crime years for South L.A., when Crips or Bloods battled each other, when Latino gangs started to explode in the area, and when corruption among some gang cops called into question the legitimacy of law and order. By 2002 much of South L.A was responsible for 40 percent of the city's murders. Subsequent gang injunctions and three-strikes convictions stunned some gangs, while the LAPD took a long path to reform. In the 1990s Latino gangs largely adopted a no–drive-by–shooting policy. And cooperation, or at least respect, among gangs loosely allied under the Mexican Mafia seems to have reduced bloodshed in L.A. As a result, the early 2010s saw some of the lowest citywide crime figures ever recorded. The Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau (which covers neighborhoods south of the 10 freeway, along with San Pedro, Wilmington and Harbor Gateway) reports there have been 31 homicides so far this year. That represents a slight increase from the 28 in 2015.
1. Gentrification is underway.
Real estate in West Adams and Jefferson Park is booming, and the large, beautiful Arts & Crafts homes there can list for upwards of $800,000. The proposed construction of an upscale apartment high-rise nearby, at La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards, played a role in L.A.'s development wars at the ballot box, where a measure designed to quash such projects was defeated in March. “There's a simple model of gentrification that explains everything, and it starts with the word 'shortage,'” says Myers of USC. “If there's a housing shortage, younger people will be pushed into neighborhoods to find housing.” For South L.A., he says, gentrification is occurring in West Adams and Jefferson Park not only as a result of that pressure but because the housing stock there is attractive. “It's old housing that was at one time run-down, but built for rich people originally,” the professor says. “The room sizes are bigger, the fixtures are nicer.” On the heels of Metro's new Expo Line extension (which connects downtown to Santa Monica and runs through South L.A.), development of the Crenshaw/LAX Line through the community will attract more newcomers, he predicts.