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Los Angeles Riots Remembered

Ten years ago, Los Angeles was shaken by racial riots. More than 50 people were killed and hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed. From the corner where the trouble began, there was a note of harmony Monday and some expressions of anger.

Much has changed in South-Central Los Angeles in the 10 years since the riots. The disturbances were sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers who had beaten a black motorist - Rodney King. Angry people gathered on street corners, expressing frustration.

At the corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues, in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles, a group of men pulled a white driver from his truck and savagely beat him. The man, named Reginald Denny, survived because four black residents defied the crowd and drove him to a hospital for treatment.

But as anger over the verdict spread throughout the city, crowds set fire to many businesses. Liquor stores and shops owned by Korean Americans were targeted because the immigrants owned many businesses in the central city, and were often the focus of resentment.

This year, the intersection where the trouble began was peaceful as three violinists - one black, one Korean, and one Hispanic - lit a symbolic "candle of unity" and gave a brief performance of classical music.

Musician Chan Ho Yun helped organize the streetside performance, as well as a concert Monday evening featuring 500 local children. The theme of the events was "peace, love and harmony," and the music he chose to express the theme was Pachelbel's Canon.

"The beauty of it," he said, "is that each voice speaks simultaneously with other voices. And that is my hope for the whole of Los Angeles. We have various cultures living separately, but we should live in harmony, just like what Pachelbel wrote in the Canon for Three Violins."

Over the past 10 years, community groups have worked to attract private investment to this neighborhood, with impressive results. There are now new plazas and restaurants and few of the tenement slums that mar other big cities.

But unemployment here is still double the national average. Poverty rates are just as high and many young unemployed black men get in trouble with the law.

A handful of protesters were on hand to say not enough has changed in South-Central Los Angeles, especially in the neighborhood near Florence and Normandie. One man lifted his shirt to show scars he said were inflicted by police in a beating.

Another community activist, Muhammad Mubarak, says there are not enough high-paying jobs here. "A a lot of people are still mad because of the infrastructure of the community hasn't changed. A lot of cosmetics have changed, but that's just cosmetics. New shopping centers, new apartment buildings, but you've got a lot of guys that are coming out of the penitentiary who ain't got no hope. And have no future. Now, these are the kind of scenarios that we've got to work on to help the people of the community."

Loretta Jones, a community health worker, says the issues today are not racial but economic. She says many in this neighborhood still lack health insurance and suffer from other problems. "The lack of insurance for children down here, the poor housing, the absentee landlords. Those things haven't changed," she said. "And until that happens, you're going to have a lot of angry people."

Urban analyst Joel Kotkin agrees that problems remain in the central city but says much has improved in Los Angeles, which today shows few of the scars inflicted by the riots. Mr. Kotkin is a researcher at Pepperdine University. He said, "What's really interesting is that about 80 percent of what was destroyed has been rebuilt. And no other American city has had that kind of rebuilding after riots. If you go to Detroit, you go to Washington DC, places where there were riots 30 or 40 years ago, there are still empty lots. So I think there's been a lot of progress made, and certainly the city's much less racially polarized than it was 10 years ago."

Mark Ridley-Thomas represents this neighborhood on the Los Angeles city council. He said economic opportunities are improving as outside businesses see the neighborhood's potential. "There's a huge market here with extensive buying power and once retailers locate here, they find that to be true," he said.

Population expert Bill Frey of the Milken Institute notes the ethnic makeup of central Los Angeles has changed with an influx of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The new arrivals are now the dominant group in many neighborhoods, as older residents move to the suburbs and outlying cities. "More people move in," he said, "they stay a while and they move out. They move to the [San Fernando] Valley, they move to Orange County, they move to Riverside and even to Las Vegas because we still have this increasing stream of people coming into Los Angeles. It's a popular part of the country to live in and work in. People are willing to take long commutes to be able to stay here."

Analyst Joel Kotkin adds that many inner city neighborhoods are becoming more livable, as once run-down parts of the city become revitalized.

President Bush met with community leaders in South-Central Los Angeles Monday, nearly 10 years after his father, the former President Bush, came to meet with community leaders after the riots. The president said that lawlessness always hurts the poor but out of the incredible destruction came new hope.

Much remains to be done in the section of Los Angeles where the unrest began. The organizers of the street performance say their concert for "peace, love and harmony" expresses a hope for the future as much as it celebrates the improvements of the last 10 years.