This week marked a grim anniversary for my hometown of Los Angeles. Beginning on April 29, 1992, the city erupted in anger and fire for several days after a Simi Valley jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of unarmed African-American motorist Rodney King.
Our local media is filled with stories of reporters, community leaders and residents remembering where they were and how they reacted when the civil unrest unfolded. I can't share in those stories, because I wasn't in L.A. at the time. I was a student at UC Berkeley, and I discovered that my hometown was burning when the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle landed at my dorm room door. Like millions across the country and the world, I could only watch - horrified - on my television from afar.
The mostly black, middle-class neighborhood where I grew up is just a few miles west of where the flashpoint - the infamous corner of Florence and Normandie - occurred. My mother was working as a nursing supervisor at a county clinic right in the heart of South-Central L.A., as the area was then known. Fortunately, she got home safely.
Some things have changed since the unrest opened up racial and class wounds caused by decades of de-facto segregation, police brutality, job losses and social neglect. South-Central L.A. was officially renamed South Los Angeles, presumably to erase the stigma associated with the former name. The Los Angeles Police Department has over the years made efforts to improve relations with people of color in the community. South L.A., once predominantly African-American, is now mostly Latino.
However, some things haven't changed. I moved back to my childhood home to look for work after several years writing for newspapers in central California. Unfortunately, the economic situation in South L.A. is worse than it was 20 years ago. Unemployment in the entire city is high - just below 12%. L.A. is economically segregated now more than ever. Drive from West L.A. to South L.A. and you'll go from eye-popping wealth to grinding poverty. After the unrest, politicians made grandiose promises to rebuild South L.A. But many of those promises proved hollow. South L.A. is still chronically underdeveloped and dotted with empty, weedy lots - some next to my neighborhood.
Yet, there's reason to hope. The decades-long abandoned buildings on the blighted lot a couple of blocks from my house are finally being demolished, and hopefully, development will begin there soon. The movie theater and shopping mall across the street from that lot was recently renovated. In January, the first fine-dining restaurant since probably when I was a kid opened down the street. And a long-awaited east-west light rail line - the first in 50 years - has just opened in South L.A. The new Expo Line now links downtown to Culver City in the west and will eventually reach Santa Monica in four years. I took the Expo on a round trip to downtown on its inaugural weekend. Service was free and celebrations were held along the route. The train was packed with excited people. Finally, South L.A. had something to celebrate. It feels a little less cut off from the rest of Los Angeles. With the exception of the island of wealth that is the University of Southern California, most of the area along the Expo route is poor and blighted. New transit hubs often attract economic development. Will South L.A. benefit or will another 20 years pass without much progress?