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Los Angeles' future: our future?

Los Angeles--On the Sunday after its days of terror, the heart of this citadel of the Pacific, America's second largest city is full of foreboding images--and some very faint rays of hope.

The charred and smoldering ruins of South Central L.A's stores and shopping strips represent a cataclysmic loss in investment --and in jobs. City Hall sealed off with high fences and National Guard troops, the Los Angeles Times' windows boarded up, show an establishment under seige. A city filled with National Guardsmen toting M-16s suggest an urban America uncontrollable without brute military force.

Economically, the Los Angeles riots are a body blow. Rebuilding could easily cost a billion dollars or more. Unlike the more contained urban riots of the '60s, savage effects last week were felt quickly, fiercely, radiating outward to Hollywood, Pasadena, Long Beach, San Bernardino.

What's more, those Angelenos and suburbanites whose neighborhoods remained inviolate had better prepare for economic backlash. Some 15,000 inner-city jobs went up in smoke in two days of looting and rampaging. But economic consequences may ricochet across the metropolitan region and could lead to a total loss of an estimated 50,000 jobs or more.

Immediately in peril is L.A.'s $7 billion-a-year tourist industry, now hit with a wave of Japanese cancellations. Los Angeles-region joblessness was already 9.5 percent on the heels of heavy defense industry cutbacks.

And this is not the cocky, wealthy, world leader--or nation--that responded to the Watts riots of 1965. Public finances alone tell the story: We have an impending deficit of $400 billion nationally with trillions in debt (a lot of it to foreigners). California faces an $11 billion deficit for the next fiscal year, Los Angeles $200 million.

"Rebuild L.A." chief Peter Ueberroth talks wistfully of attracting Japanese investment for the reconstruction task. But Joel Kotkin, economic analyst at Pepperdine University, notes the grim possibility that L.A.'s existing base of Asian, Mexican, Latin-American and European investors may now "bolt."

The riots of the '60s left inner cities devastated but suburban and rural America virtually untouched. Today, it's not unreasonable to worry that riots in great cities can reverberate through a now intertwined global economy with incalculable results.

Yet on this hazy Sunday afternoon, looking across from the burned out hulks of riot-hit buildings, one sees hundreds of people--blacks, Latinos, whites, Koreans --packing the parks, happy for a few rays of sunshine and rest after a week in hell.

And a massive cleanup has begun. Tens of thousands of volunteers--Anglos and Asians, Hispanics and African Americans-- have converged on riot-torn neighborhoods with shovels, brooms and pitchforks. Some are from Ventura Country (site of Simi Valley's 12 blind jurors), others from as far away as Long Beach and Riverside County.

Where will L.A.'s convulsion lead us? Does it presage a downward economic and social spiral? Or might it be the ultimate wake-up call for a society that's elected indifferent national leadership and left its troubled urban neighborhoods to fester?

Without question, the gross injustice of the acquittals of the police officers who administered the brutal beating to Rodney King has awakened millions of Americans to the terrible discrimination blacks still suffer at the hands of police and court systems. Even people who condemn the looting and rioting that followed have to acknowledge the wellspring of deep anger and frustration that lay behind it.

And we have reason to be deeply worried about what happens next. The Watts riots preceded the long, hot, riot-torn summers across America's inner cities in the late '60s. L.A.'s disturbances could be the same bitter harbingers, but for our entire society.

Over the last two decades, America has rapidly turned towards unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity. California and other states will soon have a "majority of minorities."

Before Los Angeles, there was at least the chance that we could fashion our multiculturalism to create a 21st-century America strengthened, not weakened by its diversity. One can imagine a vision of multicultural nationhood based on liberty and freedom just as exciting and unifying as the optimistic patriotism of the early American republic.

After Los Angeles, however, we have deep reason to fear our polyglot complexion could, instead, be our undoing just as the monocultural Japanese politicians and theorists, echoing Nazi statements made about America a half century ago, have been suggesting.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley sums up the challenge: "If we as a nation continue to ignore the racial reality of our times, tiptoe around it, demagogue it or flee from it, we're going to pay an enormous price. Maybe out of this horrible set of events that's saddened me terribly will come some healing, some coming together, some commitment."

Rodney King's poignant and simple plea may be even more to the point: "We can all get along. We've just got to."
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Peirce, Neal
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:May 11, 1992
Words:809
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