April 29, 2002

Rebuilding a City One Block at a Time


LOS ANGELES -- The violence that ripped through Los Angeles 10 years ago today was like the raw wail of an untended child. It was more than that, of course: the riots of April 1992 left more than 50 dead and $1 billion in property damage. But the cry still echoes. If America is working out its future in Los Angeles, then the city's experience trying to calm that wail is worth revisiting a decade later.

Part of what the riots revealed was a city landscape bereft not just of hope, but of the most basic urban amenities: There were only two major supermarkets in south central Los Angeles, for instance, and other services like auto-repair shops and banks were also scarce. Rebuilding Los Angeles, it soon became clear, would require more than government and private-sector investment. Community leaders needed to step into the void and, with the support of local foundations, they did. Though much remains unfinished, the city has made some remarkable gains.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, government and private-sector support was woefully inadequate. The federal government allotted some $1.35 billion in aid, but only a small fraction was used to help those directly affected by the riots. California and the city, crippled by a deep recession, lacked sufficient resources to help.

Meanwhile, Rebuild Los Angeles, the city's effort to rally private-sector good citizenship, was led by Peter Ueberroth, who had led the city's Olympics triumph. Launched with great fanfare at one point its board consisted of 94 members, including Hollywood figures like the actor Edward James Olmos and the agent Mike Ovitz it was unable to meet public expectations or the real magnitude of need. Of the $4 billion to $6 billion the organization estimated was necessary to bring the affected communities up to par with the rest of the county, only $389 million had actually been raised and invested by the time Rebuild L.A. closed its doors in 1997.

It was truly twilight in Los Angeles: a time of quiet desperation, uncertainty and, ultimately, invention. A few grass-roots community leaders, who had seen the riots sap what strength was left in their neighborhoods, decided to take a new approach. Working with local foundations, they helped move philanthropy beyond its historic support for charity. Philanthropists began to invest in community organizing in the hope that it could more effectively solve social problems. With a new willingness to take chances, foundations invested millions of dollars.

In the last 10 years, these community-led efforts have become a new force in Los Angeles politics, one that exists almost entirely outside traditional power circles and they have made an impact on legislation and public policy. They were instrumental in the passage of the city's living-wage law, approved five years ago, which has raised more than 10,000 low-wage workers above the poverty level. Like most of the nearly 60 living-wage ordinances that have been passed nationwide since 1988, the ordinance requires that city contractors guarantee employees a wage that keeps them above the threshold for federal assistance.

Building on the success of the living wage, community leaders found new ways to apply the principle that public contracts should provide public benefits. Last summer, community residents, joined by labor and religious leaders, met with developers of the Staples Center, who intended to expand the development beyond its original boundaries downtown. The developers agreed to provide living-wage jobs, hire local workers, offer job training, build affordable housing and make room for both parks and residential parking. The agreement reflects the priorities of residents because they were involved in the negotiations.

There are signs that this approach to civic involvement may be spreading: In California, groups in San Diego, Oakland and San Jose are currently pushing for what's been dubbed "accountable development." Unlike public development in the past, accountable development requires developers to provide public benefits like child-care facilities, teen centers and community involvement in the selection of retail tenants. In the case of the Staples Center expansion, Los Angeles inserted a "claw-back" provision in its contract with the developer, giving the city the right to demand the return of its subsidies if the developer fails to deliver on its promises. Such provisions have been passed into law in more than a dozen states and municipalities.

A decade ago in Los Angeles, there was little appreciation for the kind of innovation that springs from the grass roots. But this bottom-up approach has helped solve old problems and helped bring together the African-American, Asian and Latino communities of South Central.

None of this means that government and private-sector investment wasn't needed 10 years ago and isn't needed now. It only shows that even when political and business leadership fail, community leaders can succeed albeit on a modest scale.
Community organizing, no matter how well funded by philanthropies, can't cure urban poverty or stop crime. But it can help test new models that can then be expanded over time. Its successes thus far in Los Angeles include a new $100 million trust fund that will begin to address the city's affordable housing crisis and a campaign in South Central to encourage more productive use of retail space; there are now 150 fewer liquor stores in a neighborhood that in 1992 had more liquor stores than the state of Rhode Island.

After the fires of 1992, it was very hard to imagine what could be accomplished. Today, elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists around the country searching for ways to address urban poverty might take notice of the unlikely sparks of change in Los Angeles.

Torie Osborn is executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which supports grass-roots community organizations.

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