Police Abuse

The Riots & After: Reconstruction

The power of imagination.


Police Chief Daryl Gates spent the first evening of the Los Angeles riots at a political fundraiser in Brentwood. People who honestly want to rebuild L.A. might want to spend some time there, too.

To Angelenos, this advice will sound strange. Brentwood is far from South Los Angeles—in miles and in money. On its fringes, you can buy a plain two-bedroom condo for a shade under $300,000. In its heart, home prices stretch into seven figures. The people of Brentwood are wealthy, and they are mostly white.

There are no factories in Brentwood. Shops, yes; restaurants, yes; banks and hairdressers and gas stations, yes. But no factories or movie studios or big law firms. Brentwood looks like a very upscale version of South L.A. before the riots. It has "no jobs."

And the problem with most plans to help the inner cities is that they can't explain why Brentwood isn't poor. From Jack Kemp's enterprise zones, to separatist schemes to "recycle black dollars," to socialist dreams of city-owned rail-car factories, these plans all share a single premise: that the way to make neighborhoods prosper is to put businesses in them.

This vision sounds great. Self-reliance is, after all, a respected virtue in America—and a stark contrast to welfare dependency. Entrepreneurship is inspiring. Ethnic solidarity has provided capital, labor, and upward mobility for countless immigrants. Community self-help has a nice ring.

But with or without investment from the outside, these plans all assume one thing. They assume that South Central will remain a ghetto.

And in a free society, economically thriving ghettos just aren't stable. If new enterprise does spring up in South-Central L.A., if neighborhood entrepreneurs start making big bucks and neighborhood workers steady wages, one of two things will happen. Most likely, the newly affluent and the newly middle class will do what their counterparts elsewhere have done. They will get the hell out of South Central. They will use their money to buy safety for their families, and they will commute. Eventually, they will find jobs closer to their new homes. And South Central will remain "the inner city."

But suppose that doesn't happen. Suppose well-to-do residents decide to stay. Suppose they clean up the neighborhood, invest in it, improve it. Suppose by dint of community spirit, political pressure, and hard work, they manage to make South Central once again safe and prosperous. Their investment will pay off. Property values will go up. They will attract more people like themselves. And the neighborhood will gentrify. It will no longer be "the inner city." It will become expensive. And the people who made it a poor neighborhood, the desirable and the undesirable alike, will have to go elsewhere.

The truth is, poor neighborhoods aren't poor because the neighborhoods don't have jobs. They are poor because the people who live in them don't have jobs. The problem of the inner cities is not a problem of place. It is a problem of people.

On one level, that makes it an easier problem to solve. South Central is a risky place to put a business; even without company-destroying riots, crime defines the inner city. It's hard to overcome the threat of bullets with the promise of tax breaks. It should be simpler to bring the people to the jobs than the jobs to the people. After all, all over the world, poor people travel vast distances in search of work. From Los Angeles alone millions of dollars flow back to Latin America and Asia, retracing the journeys of those who earned them.

But the policy makers concocting ways to "save our cities" ignore this pattern. In Los Angeles, neither Anglo social planners nor black community leaders seem able to imagine how a native-born Angeleno—the child or grandchild of people who crossed the continent to find better work—could take the bus to a job across town. In this city of commuters, no one can imagine a commute from South Central.

This failure of imagination has several sources. One is the habit of mind created by a community dependent on, and insulated by, government checks. On May 1, the Friday of the riots, hundreds of people stood for hours to collect welfare and social-security checks at post offices patrolled by National Guardsmen. In the inner city of Los Angeles, in the inner cities of America, the money comes in; the people don't go out.

Then, there is the current devastation. To be good places to live, neighborhoods do need shops and restaurants and banks and hairdressers and gas stations—the kinds of retail outlets that were sacked by looters and consumed by flames. Insurance companies expect to pay more than $775 million for riot damage, but some business owners say they'll take the money and flee. And with so many businesses gone, it's natural to think about replacing those that won't return.

But such retailers are important not because they provide jobs but because they provide services. They are a convenience to residents, not a path to economic salvation.

What really distinguishes South Central from Brentwood (or from less affluent neighborhoods such as Hollywood) isn't a lack of jobs. It is social isolation, isolation so profound that those who speak for the inner cities assume it will continue forever. In a city that exports imagination to the world, no one can imagine how a young man from South Central might find work on a calmer side of town. No one can imagine hiring him. He cannot imagine it either. He lives in one world. Employers live in another. Jobs must come to South Central because no one can imagine it any other way.

We will not overcome that isolation with a jobs program from Washington. Such programs exist so that local politicians can dole out opportunity locally. Such programs do not widen horizons. They keep things in the district. And while they may provide work experience, they do not teach people how to find real jobs, jobs that involve no political connections.

Indeed, the whole focus on federal programs is destructive. It is unjust to loot the people of Cleveland and Tampa and Santa Fe to rebuild L.A., a city whose reconstruction offers them no conceivable benefit. But it is more than unjust; it is dangerous.

The obvious danger lies in the already apparent backlash—against Los Angeles, against cities, against blacks, against immigrants, even against Rodney King. It is a backlash that for the most part still confines itself to talk-show call-ins and irate letters to the editor. But it will eventually take political form, and it will not resemble anything as benign as a tax revolt.

There are also more-subtle perils. Some critics have charged that passing a huge aid package rewards rioting, encouraging more of it. This would be true if the aid were going to the rioters, but little of it will reach them directly. Aid does send the wrong message to rioters, but it is not that message.

Rather, aid tells rioters—and the rest of America—that wealth is something to be snatched, to be taken and to be taken lightly. In the unreal world of Washington, billions can be had at the stroke of a pen; adding zeros is a measure of sincerity. Money comes from nowhere and no one. It's nothing personal.

Especially now, we need to send, and to hear, quite the opposite message: that wealth is an embodiment of work, that property is an extension of self, that burning someone's store is a personal attack, an attack no less meaningful than a physical beating. People who believe that property comes free of time and toil—whether they are tax-fed denizens of Congress, the decadent heirs of the rich, or the welfare-supported children of the poor—cannot appreciate what happened in Los Angeles and cannot begin to repair the damage.

For months after Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast, my family's friend Bob would pack his tools in his car and make weekly trips across the state to the rural enclaves that had been forgotten by the TV cameras, the Red Cross, and the federal government. Along with several friends, he would rebuild and repair the homes of people too poor and often too old to fix things for themselves. He did it, I think, because he felt a connection to these strangers—and because he knew that if he didn't do it, it wouldn't get done.

It was people like Bob who rebuilt South Carolina after Hugo. And it is people like Bob who hit the streets of Los Angeles with brooms and shovels in the weekend following the riots. In a notoriously fragmented city, people from riot-torn neighborhoods worked alongside people from as far away as Riverside County. For a fleeting moment, the people of the inner city were not isolated from the rest of town.

As he shoveled ashes into my garbage bag, a young black man from the Westside commented to me what a revelation the cleanup had been. To see what thriving businesses the area had supported just days before, he said, "blows the lid off" the idea that this neighborhood was some kind of foreign country. How ironic, he thought, that we would never have come there under ordinary circumstances. We were in Pico-Union, not beseiged South Central, but he had a point.

Federal aid tells Angelenos that they need no longer concern themselves with reclaiming their city. They've given at the office. Federal aid tells Angelenos that healing their city is none of their business. As Rep. Vic Fazio put it, "The money we provide today will restore the face of Los Angeles but it is now up to Congress and the White House to heal its heart."

By taking the trouble out of things, by giving people reason to think that "if I don't do it, it will get done," federal aid breaks the bonds of community. That, indeed, is part of the point. Aid frees the affluent from worrying about the other side of town. And it permits the inner city to avoid earnest outsiders. Ultimately, it strengthens the walls of the ghetto.

On the left, in fact, it has become quite fashionable to denigrate the cleanup efforts and the spirit behind them, to mock those who suggest that the better angels of our nature have anything to contribute to the future of our city. The ubiquitous Marxist commentator Mike Davis refers to such notions as the "smog bank of sanctimonious rhetoric obscuring our view." (Davis wants $3.7 billion for gangster-administered "social investment.")

Upholding the virtue of community efforts, it seems, detracts from the revolutionary struggle, from the glamour of gang-bangers, from the hate-filled politics of Rep. Maxine Waters. It suggests that private action is important and that we can—and should—live without killing each other. It is too damn judgmental and too damn hopeful.

But the only way to repair Los Angeles, beyond the expensive but superficial job of replacing burned-out buildings, is to break the isolation of the inner city, to bring imagination to South Central. If that happens, jobs will follow—there or elsewhere.

This is a daunting task. It requires, first of all, a concerted effort to make the streets safe—at least as safe as Hollywood, where no car radio is secure but tourists rarely end up dead. As I've suggested elsewhere ("Rage, Riots, & Respect," July), citizen patrols could offer a valuable and affordable supplement to community-based policing.

Obviously, public safety would improve the chances of bringing outsiders in. But it would also liberate insiders. When the known world is threatening, the unknown is unthinkable. If you can get shot crossing the street, crossing town becomes too risky to contemplate.

Then, there is transportation. Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles has lots of public transportation—an extensive bus system. It's just that most people would rather drive. Buses are inconvenient, especially over long distances.

Jitneys, small privately owned cars or vans, would be better. They could offer fewer stops, less waiting, and more-flexible routes. They could also provide economic mobility—opportunities for easy-entry entrepreneurship or employment. Entrenched interests, notably the taxi companies and the much-reviled Rapid Transit District, don't like the idea of competition. But surely the lives of inner-city residents count for more than the maintenance of a government bus monopoly. If South Africa can let black entrepreneurs make it big in the jitney business, so can L.A.

In his touchstone book about life in a Chicago housing project, There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz recounts one undilutedly joyous adventure: a family trip to see the store windows of downtown at Christmas time. The children have never been downtown, have never seen skyscrapers, even though they live only miles away. Their mother buys them popcorn, and they have a wonderful time. Pat Conroy tells a similar story in The Water Is Wide, only the kids are from a rural island off the coast of South Carolina. Poor people, urban or rural, tend to be provincial. Their worlds are small.

If you live in a small world, it is hard to answer one of the most important questions of all: What do you want to be when you grow up? It's a multiple-choice question, but to see the choices you have to see the world. You have to meet people—in person or in books or on television. You have to find out how to get from here to where you want to be.

Field trips and speakers and programs and books that break the children of America's ghettos out of their isolation are worth more to the future than all the shiny hotels and office buildings Urban Development Action Grants ever built. (And, let's face it, such real-estate subsidies are what "aid to the cities" is all about.) Horizon-expanding encounters aren't expensive, but they require something rare and precious: Somebody has to risk being a stranger in a strange place. Somebody has to cross town.

And that brings us to the heart of the matter. Beyond safety, beyond transportation, beyond field trips, or school choice, or loan pools, or a host of other practical ideas, lies the vague, intangible task of restoring trust, creating empathy, connecting the people of Los Angeles to one another. This is not a collective endeavor. It cannot be accomplished with symbols. The only way for people to learn to see each other as individuals is to see each other as individuals, one by one by one. And that is where the repairs must begin.

Virginia I. Postrel is the editor of REASON.