The fires last time smolder still, in South-Central L.A.

MIKE LITTWIN

April 02, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN | MIKE LITTWIN,Los Angeles

We're standing on 53rd and Normandie. In South-Central L.A.

The day is clear -- the rains have stopped -- and the sun is warm. It's the kind of perfect day for which L.A. is famous, the L.A. of our dreams.

It's not unfair, though, to suggest that dreams come a little harder on 53rd and Normandie.

The view from this corner is not the stuff of postcards. No ocean. No palm trees. No mountains. No Hollywood stars. Just flat city streets without end. But, suddenly, the place is an attraction of a kind. We all know why.

Down the street, near the church, is a fenced-in vacant lot that once supported a building. Until it burned down in last year's riots. Drive up and down Normandie, drive up and down a lot of streets in this part of town: You see many divots in the landscape, where buildings used to be.

The destruction seems random. Certainly, there's no grand design. But we know that for every empty lot, there was a fire.

"It was a garage," says a young man hanging on the corner, pointing to the emptiness. Nothing has survived except one pile of tires.

"It's all gone. A lot of [stuff] is all gone now."

The man, who looks wistful as he speaks, says his name is Mr. Keith. That's the only name he'll give. He's with two other young men, just standing on the corner. One says his name is Jerrod. One won't give any name. Says he won't talk either.

"Got nothin' to say to you," he explains and turns away. He's hot. He knows why reporters come to South-Central.

They come in anticipation of the fire next time. Will there be a next time? What happens if, in the second trial of the policemen charged with beating Rodney King, the officers walk again? In California, where they once specialized in the future, there is now fear of what might be.

It was just three blocks from here that the punks pulled Reginald Denny from his truck and beat him nearly to death.

Jerrod remembers the fire last time. He lives nearby. He won't say what role he played in the riot, or, as many call it here, the uprising.

"You writing that in the paper, right?" he says, smiling. "I can't say nothing about me, then.

"There were people running the streets -- mad. Just mad. There were people scared. There were people who acted like it was just a party. And there were the fires. And the sirens."

And the looting?

"Some folks got enough stuff to open their own store."

Mr. Keith remembers, too.

"It wasn't just about looting," he says. "That's what everyone wants to talk about, like people just took what they wanted. This was about Rodney King and the police."

And it's still about Rodney King and the police and life in South-Central, which sure hasn't gotten any better.

Nothing is getting rebuilt, despite all the promises. And one insurance company, concerned about the next time, has canceled all riot insurance in South L.A.

Mr. Keith is following the trial closely. He says everyone here is.

"It's our lives, man," he says. "I read the papers. I watch TV. We talk about it. Sometimes, that's all we talk about.

"Seems to be going a little better this time. Putting Rodney on the stand was smart. Show people he's human, just like them."

Mr. Keith won't predict an outcome, however. Who could this time? As we speak, another young man walks by. "Don't be talking to no police," he says.

Nobody smiles.

At the federal courthouse downtown, not 10 miles from here, the lawyers battle and the cameras roll. Some say the media are whipping the city into a frenzy. They mean, of course, this part of the city.

There is no single Los Angeles. It's a city and a county without a center, geographic or moral. It's the third world come to the first world. It's Rodeo Drive, it's Hollywood and Vine, it's Muscle Beach and it's 53rd and Normandie.

The economy has gone bust. The traffic is still jammed. And nearly everyone in L.A. must be hoping for a verdict that won't precipitate another riot.

What if the police go free again?

"It's a toss-up," Mr. Keith says. "It could go either way."

Jerrod just shrugs.

The man who wouldn't talk says nothing. But there is a silent fury in his eyes that fairly screams.

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