May 1, 2012 - From the May, 2012 issue

Which Way LA’s Warren Olney Explores the LA Riots, 20 Years Later

20 years after the 1992 LA Riots, Warren Olney hosted a special series on KCRW’s "Which Way, LA?," covering all angles of the city’s tumultuous experience in the 90s. TPR is pleased to offer the following excerpt from the introduction of Olney’s show, aired April 27. The episode focuses on the built environment of Los Angeles and how it contributed to and changed after the riots. The complete series may be accessed online.

Warren Olney

“It really did connect the city of LA. Those of us who went through that period will forever remember, even in frustrating times—we are connected!” -Jackie Dupont Walker

Warren Olney: In three days of rioting after the Rodney King verdict, more than 50 people were killed and thousands were injured.  Eleven hundred buildings were destroyed or damaged—with a repair bill estimated at a billion dollars.    

Today we’ll focus on efforts to reconstruct South Los Angeles, on the dramatic transformation of Koreatown, and how devastation led to transformation. 

As the violence was finally dying down, Mayor Tom Bradley called Peter Ueberroth—the man who ran the first Olympic games ever to make a profit—in Los Angeles in 1984. Ueberroth remembers it well.

Peter Ueberroth: I was innocently driving down PCH when the Mayor called and said, in day two of the riots, “This thing is completely out of hand, and we need help. Would you come down?” I got down there, and the government was not participating correctly at the time, and the law enforcement people were trying to get a handle on it. And so there was going to be no budget for anything after the devastation; can we get the private sector to invest? So the Mayor formed a one-day corporation that would have a five-year life, and he asked me to head it. So I got some people, and we founded something called Rebuild LA. The good news is that government stayed out of our way. The President and Governor at the time didn’t want anything to do with LA; nobody wanted to touch LA. We were just trying to encourage somebody that had 1000 employees to open something in the devastated area with 20 employees and experiment with it. If it works, expand it. 

In the private sector, let’s not use taxpayer money. Tax payer money given to the government is normally inefficiently spent is a nice way to put it, to waste it is perhaps more accurate. People in the private sector gave me $5 million checks, some of them from individuals, just to say, “look, let’s get started. Let’s change the dialogue in the devastated area of Los Angeles.

Warren Olney:  Ultimately, Rebuild LA raised just half of that one-billion dollar estimate.  But the first task was to determine where to spend the money that might be raised.  Bernard Kinsey was an early leader of Rebuild LA… 

Bernard Kinsey: What we decided to do was to find areas that only business could operate in that were clearly needed by the community. For instance, we did a survey with the McKinsey Company and found that the only three things oversupplied in the area were gun stores, liquor stores, and funeral homes. So all the services that normal communities would have, in other words the suburbs, our community was not getting. So we went out specifically and began to target those industries. We hired some of the best people in the country as account managers to go after those particular segments. One of the biggest segments we had a great deal of success with was supermarkets. During the riots we had probably six supermarkets in the whole area impacted by the disturbances, and during my tenure the first two years we have over 33 full service supermarkets. So that’s just one example, but there are many in almost every aspect of the services for South Los Angeles that RLA led the charge on that. 

Warren Olney:  Rebuild LA was designed to last just five years. Jackie Dupont Walker was a community developer in South LA and another who signed on.

Jackie Dupont Walker: I call the incident of April 29th an economic referendum because if you look at the film of what people took, you saw survival items, not luxury items. What Rebuild LA was able to bring was the redefinition of what it meant to invest in disenfranchised communities. It helped corporate America and national brands understand that they were missing a market.  

Warren Olney: Walker says five years was never enough, and Bernard Kinsey agrees RLA alone wasn’t enough.

Bernard Kinsey: I always said that we didn’t have the only agency—we had one agency of many agencies really trying to treat a massive problem of a 2 billion dollar loss in a community that was really devastated.

Peter Ueberroth: It’s not Rebuild LA. It was the idea of the Mayor wanting to have a private sector donate its time for a while. It got things going, and that’s all it was it was intended to do. It did it very well, and nothing else was happening. There was nobody else in the hunt, as we say. There was nobody else who showed up to fight other than some local leaders who provided positive leadership and joined the board of Rebuild LA, lots of people with different ideas, from all races and religions. The bottom line is that it’s a much better area, and there are people who can go to a real grocery store. Are there enough? No, but there are a lot more than there were.”  

Warren Olney: Mayor Bradley left office soon after establishing Rebuild LA.  His elected successor, Richard Riordan, an early board member of Rebuild LA, remains unimpressed.

Richard Riordan: Rebuild LA was a great idea that didn’t work too well. Politics played a big role in it. They wanted people in the inner city, the lenders and everything, to be their friends. And so they couldn’t be tough as far as running things. People who were politically astute got the money that the Federal Government sent in, but they didn’t know how to run a business. 

Warren Olney: John Hope Bryant founded Operation Hope to serve poor communities. He became a national figure, and he takes umbrage at criticism of Tom Bradley’s Rebuild LA.

John Hope Bryant: I think that falls into the category of ‘no good deed shall go unpunished’. They were doing the Federal Government’s job. Let’s start there. The President, nice guy, came in town and said, “this is too big for me; I don’t understand it; not my box to check,” and left. And the Mayor, God bless him, Tom Bradley, took what limited resources he had, and he knew he really needed leadership, and he also knew that 91 percent of all jobs come from the private sector. Only eight percent of jobs come from the government. What the inner city needs is a market economy. The bad news is that all this stuff got burned down; it was all commercial buildings. The good news was that with it burned down you could rebuild it in a way that was attractive and compelling to market forces. By the way, the Boys Market that burnt down was replaced by a Ralph’s. That was an upgrade, and Rebuild LA helped do that.

Warren Olney: Jackie Dupont Walker points out that resources were even harder to come by after the region, and Mayor Riordan, was faced with a new challenge—a disaster many times more costly than the Rodney King riots.  

Jackie Dupont Walker: With the Northridge Earthquake coming in, our resources and attention went there because it appeared to be more critical. And then you had the recession during that time, pretty much like the recession  stopping things now.


Warren Olney: Walker says that Rebuild LA did not lose track of its mission.

Jackie Dupont Walker: Given the full context at the time, and the mission RLA set in place, I see now some of the fruits of those labors as new Smart & Finals and as Walgreens come into the community. These did not want to come before they were taken to the community and shown the half full community instead of the community in total disarray.

Warren Olney: Rebuild LA was the short-term response to the devastation of the 1992 riots. As years passed, rebuilding in South LA continued, with public investment from the Community Development Agency of Los Angeles, which built its work on the footprint left by Rebuild LA. Carolyn Hull is project manager for South LA for the now-defunct CRA/LA.

Carolyn Hull: They’ve provided us with a wealth of information about the areas and land that was vacant in South Los Angeles. And that was critical to us as we tried to do our own economic development planning. In terms of what buildings were burnt, where the vacant lots were, and as developers came in, we were able to use that information to direct them towards areas that could be used for their own development.

Warren Olney: David Roberts grew up in South LA, and following the riots he worked for then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and later for Councilman Bernard Parks. (He is now USC’s Associated Director for Government Relations.) He is less impressed by the rebuilding efforts in his area.

David Roberts: From what I recall, and bear with me—I was an intern at Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office at the time—I think there were expectations from Rebuild LA. And I think for the most part those expectations were not realized. You later saw this push to create these community redevelopment project areas, these revitalization project areas, in response to the civil unrest. I think if you go back in time and measure what the redevelopment project areas have been able to do as far as building affordable housing units, creating retail services, grocery stores, jobs, etc, there’s been a much greater success rate with the government assisted and government led efforts with the redevelopment agency than you had with Rebuild LA that was primarily focused on private investment.

Warren Olney: Did the work go quickly?

Jackie Dupont Walker: I think irregular. Starts and stops. Spurts. So you had supermarket chains that came in at that time, many of whom stayed and expanded and others that had come as a result. For example, had Vons and Ralphs or Food 4 Less and Smart and Final not come in, then Fresh and Easy would probably not have looked at the inner city. We still haven’t got Trader Joes to pay attention, but they may not have come. Had not Benjamin Moore Paints and Chief Auto Parts come in than the others would not possibly have come in.

Carolyn Hull: There’s been a tremendous amount of investment in South LA. If you drive around South LA, you will see a great deal of new investment and certainly new retail stores have come in.

Warren Olney: So if it wasn’t Rebuild LA, then what did it?

Carolyn Hull: I think it’s this concept of mega communities. I don’t think any one organization. What we needed was a collective approach. One of the good things about CRA was at least it had a place-based approach to it; it was geographically bound. So all the investment, although in some cases in South LA that investment was limited, had to be in one area. The private sector, the government, and community stakeholders actually came together to make these things happen.

David Roberts: The success Carolyn was referring to earlier, if you look at Chesterfield Square as an example, that twenty acres, that’s a concentrated effort to do something and create a retail shopping center for South LA. There’s been examples along Central Avenue where you have about a mile stretch between Adams and Vernon, literally hundreds of units of affordable housing, two new grocery stores. Examples along Figueroa near USC: there has been dramatic new development along that corridor since the 1992 civil unrest. But to look at a large area like South LA, close to a million people and close to 50 square miles, it’s difficult without again strategically focusing those efforts on smaller geographic areas.

Warren Olney: Kerman Maddox is head of Dakota Communications and a member of the board of directors of the First AME church… 

Kerman Maddox: If you’re objective, if you looked at LA twenty years ago and then you looked at it now, you’d have to say things are much better off in South LA. For example, a lot of basic services that people in other communities take for granted that did not exist in South LA are there today. You’ve got banks, supermarkets, you have a few sit down restaurants that weren’t there before. Is it perfect? Obviously it’s not perfect, but a lot of change has happened and good things have happened, and more important than that is if you go to these establishments and look at the people who work there, it’s the local community. So not only do you have way more services, but you have local entities that have hired people in the local community to work there.

Warren Olney: The riot of 1992 and the rebuilding changed many lives. Jackie Dupont Walker about what it meant to her.

Jackie Dupont Walker: It really did connect the city of LA. Those of us who went through that period will forever remember, even in frustrating times—we are connected! To the San Gabriel, San Fernando Valley, San Pedro, South LA, East LA, Central LA. I’m not sure I got that before. And I think sometimes even as I do commission work and travel to different parts of the city, it is a very clear reminder in mind head of what Rodney King said, “We are in this together.”


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