During this past weekend’s L.A. Times Festival of Books, I found myself sharing some good conversation with one of our most insightful local writers, D.J. Waldie. Lamenting the state of our city, D.J. said, “Cities are like organisms. And this organism seems destined to divide, destined to split into two between East and West.” To be fair, Waldie was talking about many aspects of L.A., including the divisions caused by sprawling freeways, inhuman traffic, and surging growth out into the Inland Empire.
But as some, at least, quietly mark the 15th anniversary of the 1992 riots, the most profound of our divisions remains, indeed, the socioeconomic chasm between our Western and Eastern hemispheres.
Is that a groan I hear? Impatience with what the reader senses will be yet one more lecture on the Two Worlds of Los Angeles? Perhaps. But given our collective intransigence to ever do much about it, it seems a theme worth revisiting.
Yes, much has changed since 1992. Perhaps most importantly, the catalytic agent of the ’92 conflagration, the LAPD, has finally taken police reform seriously. The lessons of the Rodney King–Daryl Gates era have been fully assimilated, and Chief William Bratton has done a commendable job of slowly but surely shifting the notorious internal bunker-culture of the department. The police-training academy actually gives classes on how the LAPD once got it all wrong.
The mayor’s chair, occupied at the time by a somnolent Tom Bradley, has been ceded to a sometimes excessively energetic Latino whose work in effectively crossing racial lines dates back more than a decade. Some of the most volatile racial rifts, especially between blacks and Koreans, have been tenuously, if incompletely, bridged.
But there’s a series of both newly emerged factors and lingering problems that should deeply disquiet us. These days, tensions between blacks and Latinos too often turn to bloodshed. The rising empowerment of the latter, sometimes tinged with a discernible anti-black sentiment, only increases a certain desperate paranoia in an African-American community that feels cornered and overrun. At the same time, geometrically multiplying sectors of our economy have become dependent on cheaply available Latino labor, and yet — compared to 15 years ago — we have dug ourselves deeper into denial on the need to legalize these workers. A million of them may have come out boldly into the streets a year ago, but today it’s just as impossible for them to get a driver’s license or car-insurance policy.
The Korean community, meanwhile, has greatly extended its physical and economic dimensions. Increased, if not frenzied, spurts of private capital investment from South Korea have enriched a blessed few but also locked many others into low-wage service jobs. The net effect has been to aggravate the unequal patterns of development. Median family income in Koreatown at the time of the 1992 riots was $28,000 a year. Today, it’s just over $24,000.
The promised investment in the poorer half of the city has become not so much a forgotten anecdote as a cruel joke. There are a couple of more Starbucks, Magic’s movie complex, a supermarket or two, and some enterprising developers are promising a $200 million upgrade of the Crenshaw mall. But who in this city is capable of recalling the failed promise of Rebuild L.A. without a painful grimace? In the aftermath of the riots, local reporters lined up obediently and patiently waited their turn in the steaming L.A. summer sun to dutifully fluff and puff RLA czar Peter Ueberroth. In retrospect, only L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority has racked up such a disgraceful record of neglect, abandonment and unmitigated failure.
The 1992 convulsions rolled out from the epicenter of Florence and Normandie after a group of young men had spent the day drinking outside the door of Tom’s liquor store. Tom’s still stands today, as do more than 500 other liquor stores in South-Central. The loitering young men are still there as well. And just last week, one of the inner city’s many nearly anonymous shootings took place outside Tom’s.
Don’t consider this a dark Cassandra call. I’m among those inclined to most exuberantly celebrate the millions of daily miracles that constitute life in L.A. — that breathtaking capacity of so many to coexist peacefully, collaborate willfully, even fall in love with and marry so many from so many different places.
None of that, however, should lead us to deny the existence of that widening, central economic fault line that threatens to crack, at any time, with catastrophic consequences. It can be described in many elaborate, even baroque, terms. But better to keep it simple. Drive from west to east; take San Vicente from the beach into Beverly Hills. Then cruise Olympic east to Vermont and head south to Century. You will have quickly traversed our twin worlds, a journey of contrasts almost as jarring as going from San Diego across the international border. On our Westside, almost exclusively, are those who are served. To their east and south, those who do the serving.