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America's City of Tomorrow Shaken - Still - by Past

FIVE YEARS AFTER L.A. RIOTS

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Five years after the costliest riots in US history, Los Angeles has become neither the prototype of American urban revitalization that many had hoped nor the "Bladerunner" dystopia others had feared.

The city has rebuilt hundreds of buildings damaged during three days of rioting that turned Los Angeles into a worldwide symbol of racial anger and urban despair. Bridges have been built between disparate and distrusting groups. New opportunities have been created in inner-city neighborhoods - symbolized by a gas station in the heart of sprawling South Central that helps youths find jobs.

Yet many believe Los Angeles is no better off today than it was before the riots - and may be worse. Many neighborhoods in South Central remain pockmarked with abandoned buildings, and the ethnic tensions that helped ignite the unrest persist. Thus the city that is the nation's premier laboratory for multiculturalism moves forward still shaken by its past and uncertain of its future.

"On the cusp of the 21st century, Los Angeles has been probing two possibilities for the rest of urban America," says California historian Kevin Starr. "The city as a cutting edge of culture - say, a new Athens or Alexandria - or the city of the dreadful night. The story it has faced, that communities can be squandered and go up in smoke, is one that holds lessons for cities around the globe."

The civil unrest sparked by the acquittal of white police in the videotaped 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King hit 70 square miles of the city, damaging more than 10,000 businesses and costing $1 billion.

But amid the flames, there was hope. Helicopter-loads of politicians arrived in the heady days of the riot's aftermath, calling for a new progressivism in the city's leadership and a plan of public and private money to rebuild neighborhoods.

Recently, Los Angeles has begun putting some of the lessons learned from the 1992 riots into practice. But by and large, many observers say that the progress has been disappointing. The reason for this, they say, is tied to the continued inability of residents, community leaders, and public bodies to undo the underlying patterns of inequality that have existed for decades.

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