Reporter’s notebook: How Los Angeles rose from the ashes of the riots 25 years ago

FILE - In this May 1, 1992 file photo, Rodney King speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles pleading for the end to the rioting and looting that has plagued the city following the verdicts in the trial against four Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating him. It was King's first public appearance in a year. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

(ABC)– John Martin, a retired ABC News national correspondent, is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. This is his first-person essay written for ABCNews.com reflecting on his experiences covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

On that morning 25 years ago, smoke still hung in the air from the looting and fires the day before, but it seemed the nighttime curfew had worked. Streets were largely deserted, boulevards eerily quiet.

The big white stock exchange building was open but almost nobody came to trade. Universities were closed, USC postponed final exams. Workers stayed home.

As an ABC News national correspondent walking the streets with a camera crew, I spent 10 days looking for signs of revival and hope. At first, I didn’t see many.

“I don’t believe it had anything to do with Rodney King,” said a black woman in front of her looted shop. “I think it had to do with people’s greed.”

At a post office, hundreds of people lined up for Social Security checks and monthly welfare assistance.

“These are not the people who bombed and looted and destroyed the stores,” said a 20-ish black woman in a bright orange jersey. “These people,” she said, “want get their money.”

Meanwhile National Guard troops began streaming off buses. The mayor seemed relieved. “We are going to insure the safety of this city,” said Tom Bradley, a black man and former police officer. “And we are going to take back the streets.”

But what would Los Angeles do with its streets? There were 10,000 looted and burned businesses, at least 200 families homeless, food shelves empty, banks littered with ashes, a doctor’s office choked with debris.

“The evil act is done,” said Dr. Gerald Fradkoff, an internist who devoted his practice to the aged poor and low-income immigrants.

Dropping his singed paper records into a brown cardboard box, the doctor said he would try to renegotiate a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration.

“I have to heal, the city has to heal, and we have to come back together.”

Then, suddenly, it started, we began to see a remarkable amount of effort. It was heartening.

In Hollywood, volunteers streamed along the sidewalks and in passing trucks, helping wherever they were needed to sweep and clean.

In South Central, merchants opened a makeshift store in the parking lot of a burned out supermarket, calling it “Rebuilding Starts Now.”

In the city center, 14 architects and lawyers met to plan ways to construct small shopping districts in riot areas to provide food and retail services.

“The immediate solution we’ve come up with is temporary structures that will have a lifespan of perhaps one year,” said Roland Wiley, a young black architect.

But they needed city building permits and faced a bureaucratic maze.

A white-haired white lawyer, Richard Riordan, had a solution:

“If you go to them with a concept you will get jerked around for a year or so,” said Riordan. “Go in with a set plan. I will guarantee you…we’ll get that through within a few days.”

The plan worked. (So did Riordan’s get-it-done attitude. A year later, he was elected mayor).

Meanwhile, a giant drugstore chain offered more hope.

Even though it had 19 stores looted and four burned to the ground, a Thrifty executive promised the firm would not abandon the stores that were looted.

Still, there was plenty of despair.

Richard Kim, owner of a family electronics business, found that looters had stolen 20 percent of his audio equipment and television sets. Fire had destroyed a million dollars of his inventory.

“We’re already leveraged out like a lot of businesses in the area,” he said, “We cannot take out any more loans. If the insurance does not cover it, we cannot rebuild.”

An insurance official stepped forward, surveying the shop’s damage, and said the industry would not abandon firms like Kim’s.

“The evidence is absolutely clear,” he said, “So we’re going to pay it off.”

At each step, it seemed, roadblocks were slowly melting. The city would need a lot more cooperation — federal, state, local, and private — but it was a start.

One day, the state sought out big national firms which had not been in the area. Would they develop South Central Los Angeles?

Gov. Pete Wilson met for three hours with a roomful of corporate executives. He emerged and said they had attached conditions to their involvement.

“They’re willing to take a certain amount on faith, but what I’m saying is that neighborhoods really have to respond or there’s an end to that faith.”

No one seemed able to assure outside corporations their businesses would not be burned and looted, least of all Paul Hudson, whose family owned a burned-out bank for 45 years.

“The governor was wrong to seek assurances,” said Hudson.

While his accountant examined records, salvage crews looked for a vault.

Hudson smiled wanly. “When you start hedging your bets and you start talking about, ‘We need assurances, we need some guarantees, we need to know somebody else is going to reinvest with us,’ all that starts to qualify the investment potential and the commitment of this community to rebuild.”

Another day, a group of bankers, black and white, toured the riot zones. Some said big corporations should disregard the risks that they can make a profit, but there was uncertainty.

A black banker, Winston Miller, wondered: “The insurance companies, how willing are they going to be to come in and commit also?”

A white savings and loan executive, Jeffrey Hobbs, seemed certain: “The large businessmen, I think, they’ll all be here and some already are.”

But when we talked to Woodley Lewis, a black businessman, he frowned. “Why would they want to come in the heart of the black community and take a chance? Because they can spend their money someplace else and the risk is not as great.”

Each business seemed to confront its own special problem.

Eric Holoman, the black owner of a restaurant chain, wanted to rebuild.

“The problem is I lease it from a white developer,” Holoman said. “I spoke to him a minute before we convened here; he says, ‘I don’t know.’”

By the time I left on May 10, the trust needed to bring business and commerce back to life was still hard to find, but those searching for it refused to give up. Two steps forward, half a step back. In those painful moments, Los Angeles, a giant metropolis, was gathering strength and getting back on its feet.

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