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South Central L.A. recasts its riot-torn image

It could be a scene right out of any upscale American suburb:

At the corner Starbucks, business-suited patrons line up for $3 and $4 beverages. Briefcases sprawl. Laptop computers whir.

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But this is not the demesne of well-heeled commuters. This is South Central L.A., and seven years ago, the community was torn by the costliest riots in US history.

"We don't need to beg companies to come here anymore," says Mark Whitlock, a local black activist. "We need to show them the economic opportunity is already here."

After waiting largely in vain for government to repair 10,000 lost businesses, for banks and corporations to make goodwill investments, leaders are taking a new tack. They're highlighting South Central's strengths and promoting their community as one of fiscal opportunity rather than ethnic challenge.

Block by block, job by job, the tactic is working, say observers, revitalizing the area and providing a model for California and the nation. "It finally is becoming clear how underserved and misrepresented South Los Angeles has been in its attempts to put itself back together," says Wayne Bradshaw, president of Family Savings Bank. "Just as Wall Street relies on perceptions that there is future benefit in investing in a company or industry, this community is starting to get word out that there is tremendous benefit in investing in South Los Angeles."

These days, local supporters are relying on facts to persuade skeptics of the advantages of South Los Angeles, which includes South Central. For instance, it is urban America's most stable population - about 1 million and growing - with $10 billion in annual income, they say. It also has high rates of labor participation in the work force, and it is situated between downtown and two of the country's busiest ports, Long Beach and San Pedro.

In addition, a just-released study by Pepperdine University suggests that South Los Angeles is ripe for new businesses. The area has 65 percent fewer grocery stores, 40 percent fewer banks, 20 percent fewer clothing stores than the surrounding metropolis, according to the study. This results in a "leakage" of $412 million in unmet demand that consumers must spend outside the community for basic goods.

"The Home Depots and Wal-Marts and Citibanks of the world are all rushing to Mexico City for investment without blinking an eye," says Jos Legaspi, a leading commercial real estate developer here. Noting that the Mexico City market has 22 million people within a $55 billion economy, he says, "On a relative basis, South L.A. is four times bigger. That is a number people can react to."

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The effort to recast South Los Angeles's image holds lessons for other American cities, say demographers.

"The widely held idea that this inner-city population is impoverished and transient is entirely false," says Alan Heslop, a demographer at the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif., who has studied the area. "Its homeownership rates are higher than any other urban core in the country, and its patchwork of well-manicured neighborhoods belies the perception of decay and decadence that persists in the minds of outsiders."

But the comeback of South Los Angeles is also serving as a model within the region. "Every major metropolitan cluster in southern California has a mini-South L.A. in it," says Bob Farrell, chairman of a regional advisory body that counsels the Southern California Association of Governments. "By applying the same kind of systematic approach that leaders here are attempting, they will find the same principles apply."

Despite these welcome signs, many people here say prosperity remains a long way off. Perhaps the biggest hurdle to investment is legacy of the Rodney King riots. National broadcasts beamed pictures of the riots, which turned the area into a pock-marked moonscape of burned-out buildings and vacant lots. Yet today, there is little to remind visitors of the $1 billion in physical devastation.

Still, the pictures of fires, police battles, looting, and shootouts linger. "Images die hard," says Clyde Oden, chairman of WATTS Health Systems Inc. "We have got to bury the deficit-based attitudes we have been carrying and begin to take an asset-based approach to the way we project ourselves to others."

Other problems persist as well: Some ethnic conflicts still simmer, many of the buildings here are decrepit, gangs still ply the streets, and underfunded schools deter corporations who consider quality-of-life issues for employees.

"They are trying to do some much needed boosterism, but you've got to be careful with that," says Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. "There is so much emphasis on benefiting from this capitalist myth of uplift that there are no progressive voices calling for entitlements, rights, and benefits for those who will always remain poor."

Yet there seems to be a new attitude here. Indeed, it's harder to find the pessimists.

"It's a question of do you want to see the glass half empty or half full," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black author and commentator. "If there is to be a sustained genuine renaissance in South Los Angeles, leaders and elected officials must first shed their grossly distorted biases and preconceptions."

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