By Ronald Grover
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Twenty years ago, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in south Los Angeles, a mostly black mob, enraged at the acquittal of four Los Angeles policemen in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, dragged white truck driver Reginald Denny from his cab and beat him unconscious while news helicopters hovered overhead.
The gory images helped incite six days of fires and looting throughout the city that led to 53 deaths and an estimated $1 billion in property damage. The riots also ushered in years of self-examination and reform efforts in a city whose poorer neighborhoods have long been plagued by gang violence, unemployment and despair.
A visit to Florence and Normandie today, though, suggests that while some things have changed, a lot more has remained the same.
Tom's Liquor, which locals say was saved from arson in 1992 because it was protected by the Eight Tray gang, a tentacle of the city's notorious Crips, was the hub of activity one recent morning amidst a streetscape dominated by for-sale signs, darkened shops, and storefront houses of worship.
"I was there when that boy Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and people were really mad," said Todd Sellers, 46, on his way into Tom's with Terry Ellis, 51, and a woman carrying a liquor bottle miniature who gave her name only as "L'il Momma."
"If they let that guy who killed Trayvon Martin get off," he said, referring to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, "it could happen here again."
Unemployment is still rampant. It sits at around 20 percent for nearby south central Los Angeles neighborhoods and may be even higher around Florence and Normandie, epicenter of the violence that began on April 29, 1992.
The local elementary school ranks among the state's worst academic performers, and more than a quarter of the area's high school students drop out.
Residents still fear shootings and gang warfare. Los Angeles has cut violent crime by 70 percent since the riots, the city said, and homicides by 73 percent. In the areas around Florence and Normandie, it has "ticked upward," said Captain Dennis Kato of the 77th Street station, which covers a 12-square-mile (31-square-km) area that includes the intersection.
On one recent afternoon, a makeshift memorial of candles and flowers occupied one sidewalk, marking the shooting death of a Crips gang member nicknamed Magnum. Blue bandanas - Crip colors - were wrapped around two of the candles.
"The level of poverty, the disillusionment hasn't changed," said Yasser Aman, director of UMMA Community Clinic, which was started after the riots by Muslim students from UCLA medical school. Last year, the clinic treated 4,434 patients, it said, 73 percent of whom live below the poverty level as defined by the federal government.
The city has targeted south Los Angeles with city and federal funds, said Deputy Mayor Larry Frank, and is working with community and labor groups to create jobs. To battle crime, more than 700 police officers have been added.
But unemployment among black men under age 25 still approaches 60 percent in some areas, he said, a problem that has been exacerbated by the weakened economy.
"City governments are designed to handle thousands of problems," Frank said, "not hundreds of thousands."
Some of the post-riot redevelopment efforts at Florence and Normandie appear token. The intersection got a new Pep Boys auto parts store, now an Autozone, after the riots. The Chevron gas station was renovated. Little else has been done to change the physical face of the neighborhood.
Some community leaders remain optimistic that long-term anti-poverty and anti-crime initiatives, as well as court-ordered reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department, are beginning to bear fruit.
A study by Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles found that 41 percent of 1,605 Los Angeles residents surveyed think a riot is likely in the next five years, down from 51 percent a decade ago.
Helping reduce the likelihood of rioting, according to the center's director Fernando Guerra, is the area's changing demographics from largely black to 89 percent Hispanic. Still, he said, heightened unemployment in the area makes flare-ups more likely than in other areas.
Crenshaw Senior High School, which lost its accreditation for six months in 2005 due to rampant absenteeism and poor performance, is now the centerpiece of a five-year, $25 million campaign by the Los Angeles Urban League community organization to improve education and reduce unemployment by 50 percent. Graduation rates have increased, but were still under 65 percent according to the state's most recent numbers.
State Farm Insurance and Toyota each have committed $2.5 million to the effort. Starbucks contributes 15 cents from each sale at its Crenshaw store, and has given more than $1 million, according to Los Angeles Urban League President and CEO Blair Taylor.
Last summer, the Urban League brought employers in for a jobs fair, and it provides lights for a nearby park "to allow the kids to play hoops (basketball) instead of roaming the streets," said Taylor. It worked with the Los Angeles Police Department to create "safe passage zones" where kids can walk to school without fear of gangs.
'KERNELS OF HOPE'
"We are starting to see the kernels of hope," Taylor said. "But change is happening in pockets, and has taken far too long."
Gerado DeSantos, 35, an electrician and father of six who has been out of work for two months, would agree with that assessment.
The house he shares with his fiancée, Chrisna Vanegas, 35, like every house on 71st street, has bars on the doors and windows. The couple also have two German shepherd dogs and a makeshift video surveillance system.
Vanegas admits she was part of the Hispanic gang H.O.B (Hang Out Boys) in her younger years. Today, she will not allow her 13-year-old son to ride his bicycle further than a block from home for fear he will be recruited by the local Hispanic gang, Florencia 13.
The couple managed to get their six children into higher performing magnet and charter schools after their youngest was approached by gang members about joining when he was in the second grade.
Raymond Avenue Elementary School, two blocks way, ranks in the bottom 20th percentile among Los Angeles schools, according to rankings by the non-profit group GreatSchools. On standardized tests, its students scored 688 in 2011, according to the California Department of Education. The state target is 800.
It is one of 186 Los Angeles elementary schools where the curriculum is supplemented by a three-hour after-school program offered by LA's Best, a city-run group. An LA's Best spokeswoman says that students in its programs improve their test scores.
The LAPD's Kato said the vigilance of residents like DeSantos and Vanegas will eventually help the community turn the corner on gang violence. "What we have going for us is the trust that we have built with the residents in that area over the last 20 years," Kato said.
"There has been enough improvement in the police mentality, enough positive rays of sunshine coming through to give me hope," said Reverend Cecil Murray, a University of Southern California professor and retired pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church. "But the negatives still outweigh the positives."
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Will Dunham)