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Los Angeles Has Its Work Cut Out

Riot damage could cost $550 million and will delay economic recovery

FOR the second time in a quarter century, Los Angeles is looking to mend its streets and soul.

While 13,000 police and troops still patrolled the city over the weekend, the sounds of peace marches and swishing brooms echoed through neighborhoods torn by the costliest riot in United States history.

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Blacks stood shoulder-to-shoulder with whites, Asians, and Hispanics in the first faint efforts to begin the healing process amid lingering threats of violence and long-term anxiety over recovery.

"The spirit of cooperation that has evolved," said Mayor Tom Bradley, "might be one of the hopeful signs to come out of this situation."

At the corner of 27th and Vermont, about 50 local residents with brooms and shovels clear rubble from a collapsed church and shops. Torched in indiscriminate rioting that spread throughout parts of the city, the charred remains were being cleaned up, in hopes that the businesses and church would soon return.

"Isaiah 58 says, 'You shall be restorers of the streets,' " says the Rev. Steve Smith, pastor of the nearby North University Park Baptist church. When he started cleaning up the morning after, a local hardware store donated dozens of brooms and shovels. Work gangs formed spontaneously.

The metropolis has its work cut out. Ten thousand local businesses were burned, looted, or destroyed in three days of rioting, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Early estimates put the damage at $550 million but several experts said the eventual figure could be much higher. It will take a veritable Marshall Plan to reverse the consequences of 36 hours of rage.

Beyond sheer physical damage, "this riot cost the community its own jobs," noted Peter Ueberroth, the Olympics czar appointed by Mayor Bradley to head a special task force to oversee the recovery. Los Angeles County is already the most job-depleted county in the state, with estimates ranging from 90,000 to 220,000 lost over the past 18 months.

The damage could put off the region's economic recovery to perhaps 1993, says Jack Kyser, EDC's chief economist.

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Local rebounds reported in the area's $7 billion tourism industry hurt by last season's Gulf war are seen as being in jeopardy. Five of the US's most lucrative theme parks, including Disneyland and Universal Studios, are in southern California where 3,700 fires raged on national news programs throughout the upheaval.

By comparison, the five days of Watts rioting in 1965 were blamed for $183 million in damage. Thirty-four people died then, exceeded by Detroit's 43 in 1967. At least 44 died in the latest riots, including seven killed by police.

Courts scheduled special Saturday sessions to begin processing some of more than 6,300 arrested in the three-day rampage. County jails had sent about 500 inmates to state prisons to make room for riot suspects.

While the Los Angeles Police Department and Chief Daryl Gates have been criticized for not responding quickly enough, Mayor Tom Bradley credited imposed curfews through the weekend with short-circuiting sustained rioting.

Unlike the 1965 upheaval in Watts, the rioting of the past few days started out in predominantly black South Central Los Angeles but spread throughout parts of the city. The trail of arson and looting eventually stretched from Long Beach to Pasadena.

As events unfolded on Thursday and Friday following the King verdict, several hundred business and major office buildings advised workers to leave early. Held hostage to news reports and on-scene coverage, viewers across the Southland shared in a kind of community-wide, video campfire.

Among the lingering images:

* Smoke billowing from so many fires that Los Angeles International Airport was closed just hours after rioting began.

* The omniscient eye of TV cameras capturing vans ramming through jewelry store doorways.

* A group of Koreans, some armed with Uzi machine guns, barricading themselves in front of their own business, taking responsibility for law enforcement themselves.

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