THE 1992 RIOTS: Reports of L.A.'s Demise Greatly Exaggerated
Apr 28, 2002
By Joel Kotkin
Publisher: The Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times

A decade ago, it was Los Angeles noir all the time. As the city reeled from rioting, most media, business and academic leaders, from far right to far left, seemed united in the belief that Los Angeles epitomized what was bad about U.S. cities. Typical were the pronouncements of Time magazine, which spoke somberly of a "malaise" that hung over the city like a "Stage II smog layer." A year after the riots, the magazine asserted that "L.A.'s days of anxiety will continue. The city will suffer its uneasy dreams of fire so long as nearly every aspect of local life - schools, police, municipal government, race relations, the economy - provides tinder." To the folks at New York's Rockefeller Center, it was a wonder how Angelenos could "imagine how [their city] might survive."

Well, it's not a stretch to say that Los Angeles, overall, is a better place today than it was a decade ago. Crime rates, although up slightly over the past year, are half what they were 10 years ago, both citywide and in the riot zone. The city's economy is more diversified. Political power has been extended to a long-marginalized population. New infrastructure - from the subway to Staples Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall to the Alameda Corridor rail project - shows that Southern California retains the will to create a great city. Why were the "experts'" doom-and-gloom predictions about L.A. so wrong? In part, it was because their presumptions about the city were always too facile and almost absurdly overblown. Consider them.

Los Angeles is an evil and unjust city. Whether to critics on the right or left, Los Angeles was not just a troubled city - it was the epitome of evil. Oddly, much of this analysis was home-grown.

To L.A., leftist author Mike Davis, the rioters possessed a "visible moral economy" that offered them "a last call to participate in the general redistribution of wealth in progress." Such radical-chic views were embraced by many at local universities and in some media circles here, then accepted, virtually wholesale, by the outside world. USC geographer Michael Dear and his wife, Jennifer Wolch, painted Los Angeles in terms that would make Raymond Chandler blanch. The "accurate" view of Los Angeles was not that of an emerging "world crossroad city" but of "a superficial gloss of striking beauty, glowing light and pastel hues, which together conspire to conceal a hideous culture of malice, mistrust and mutiny."

Davis' and Dear's commentaries on L.A. remain part of the mainstream academic view of the city. Dear heads a well-funded and widely quoted USC-based think tank on Southern California, while Davis and other ideologues of deconstructed Los Angeles, despite their wildly inaccurate predictions of L.A.'s future, continue to be leading interpreters of the city, especially in the eyes of the eastern media. Even today, UCLA's Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies will "celebrate" the 10th anniversary of what it reverently refers to as "the uprising."

Without question, the generally negative attitudes have changed to something more nuanced and less hysterical. Old-time boosterism is rare, to be sure, but such organizations as the Economic Development Corp and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, which seemed confused or even downright negative about the region's prospects, have become more assertive in promoting the area's assets.

Recent work by both USC and the Economic Roundtable, once the most pessimistic of analysts, is similarly more balanced. The Roundtable's report "South L.A. Rising" identifies continuing weaknesses in the riot's epicenter but sees reason for hope, too, because many structures have been rebuilt and grass-roots development efforts are growing. It calls the area "the seedbed for an economic renaissance."

Ironically, the most recent explosions of civic angst have taken place in seemingly placid cities like Cincinnati and, astoundingly, in Seattle, which, a decade ago, was the preferred destination of those who wanted out of Los Angeles. Seattle has been plagued by riots at the World Trade Organization conference, the departure of its leading corporate citizen, Boeing, and, just last week, a disturbance sparked by the police shooting of a black motorist.

Los Angeles' economy could never recover without major federal assistance. The Los Angeles of 10 years ago was thought to be addicted to U.S. Defense Department steroids, so when the Cold War ended and military spending dramatically fell off, many expected the end of "our golden way of life," to quote one Times columnist. Many members of the city's business leadership shared this view. Some, like the chairman of the California Chamber of Commerce, pulled out of Southern California and moved his operations to Utah - all under the hot lights of CNN and the rest of the national media. California, and particularly Los Angeles, were experiencing what Fortune magazine called "the goodbye wave."

With the city's corporate leadership largely paralyzed by self-doubt and delusions of "greener pastures" elsewhere, the early 1990s became the era of "defense conversion," which held that Los Angeles' only hope of economic recovery lay in a federally funded program to transform bomb and missile makers into producers of mass-transit trains.

Perhaps most telling of the time's general gloom was an analysis done by the county-financed L.A. aerospace task force. In 1992, the task force predicted that Los Angeles would still be down 185,000 jobs by the end of 2002. The Southern California Assn. of Governments, meanwhile, predicted unemployment in the region would remain near double-digit levels well into the 21st century.

Help from Washington never came, but, somehow, Los Angeles, despite a Pharaonic wave of earthquakes, fires and floods, staged a major recovery by the mid-1990s, driven largely by the expansion of trade, entertainment and an array of new technology businesses. Unemployment dropped dramatically, and housing prices began their long, and still continuing, upswing. The recovery was not evenly distributed. As in the wake of the Watts unrest in 1965, businesses tended to move away from the city's center toward the periphery after the 1992 riots, notably to the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, as well as farther-out suburbs. Yet, in contrast with other post-riot situations in major cities, the central core of L.A. did not die. In Detroit, Washington and other cities, damage caused by riots three decades ago is often still evident; in L.A. at least 80% of the destroyed sites have been rebuilt.

Employment in South Los Angeles, which was plummeting before the riots, has recovered and, despite the recession, is near 1992 levels. Home prices have spurted up from their mid-'90s lows. Equally important, by the beginning of the new millennium, other neglected sections of the city - Hollywood, Echo Park, mid-Wilshire and downtown - were showing unmistakable, if sometimes uneven, renewed economic vigor. Even the long-dismissive New York Times effusively noted that Los Angeles, a city of sprawl, was suddenly "transforming itself in ways that defy its stereotype" as a vibrant urban place.

Most important, the structure and social character of the L.A. economy has changed, mostly for the better, in the last 10 years. Instead of relying on a handful of major corporations, the city's economy now rests largely on small and medium-sized businesses, a large portion of which are minority- or immigrant-owned. These companies form a diverse economy that has withstood the current recession better than many long-time L.A. competitors, including such media darlings as New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Los Angeles is a seething cauldron of racial conflict. Even after the fires died out and reconstruction replaced rioting as the main activity in most of the city's minority areas, the academic and media establishment continued to predict a hellish racial future for the city. The new focus of racial conflict was immigrants. L.A.'s Latinos, in the famous phrase of UCLA geographer Roger Waldinger, constituted "a quiescent mass that's ready to explode."

But Latinos and other parts of the city's ethnic mosaic have not performed according to script. Rather than "explode," Latinos have become integral to the city's economic, political and cultural life. Seven of the 10 top surnames of homebuyers in L.A. County are Latino. In surveys, these new citizens repeatedly poll as the most optimistic of all Angelenos.

Latinos, Asians and other immigrants, particularly those from the Middle East, increasingly drive many of L.A.'s industries. Asian-owned banks predominate among the top L.A.-based financial institutions. Newcomers from Korea, Iraq, Israel and North Africa largely control the county's $22-billion fashion industry, which has grown into the nation's largest. Over the past year, the chairmen of United Way and its L.A. chapters were both Chinese immigrants, an indication of how civic leadership has diversified.

Visit the pulse centers of the L.A. economy - from the produce and jewelry districts downtown to the media centers of Burbank, the Valley and West L.A.- and a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and creators are rising from the city's ethnic and racial diversity. In a generation, the city's economy has gone from white to multiethnic to what may be called post-ethnic.

Even in city politics, long marred by racial pandering, there are promising signs. Last year's mayoral race was marked by a Latino candidate who preached inclusiveness. In contrast, mayoral races in Philadelphia and New York were heavily racialized. Latinos have made enormous political strides, winning the City Council presidency as well the as the city attorney's office. Much of L.A. county's state and federal legislative leadership is Hispanic. Within a decade, Latinos have moved from the political margins to the mainstream.

Even the one significant race-oriented conflict in L.A., the controversy over the reappointment of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, shows how far we've progressed. Ten years ago, the police chief was widely hated in the African American community; today, the black community led the fight to retain the chief, who, although black, is also an unbending law-and-order figure. In character, the ramrod stiff Parks could not be more different as a rallying point than the perennially troubled Rodney G. King, whose beating by LAPD officers set off the series of events leading to the riots.

None of this suggests that Los Angeles has become paradise on Earth. Inefficient government downtown and an often unmanageable geographic spread have nurtured secessionist movements. Education, housing and transportation still require attention. Yet, 10 years after an event that would have crippled most cities, the City of Angels has risen again, not perhaps to its full potential, but enough to look toward the future with something other than dread.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Milken Institute. He is author of The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape (Random House, 2001).