As dozens of mostly black and Latino students at the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center gathered for an open-air press conference in the school parking lot last month, Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of Rebuild L.A., lavished praise on executives of Japan's Pioneer Electronics (U.S.A.), who had just donated $600,000 to the Watts vocational school, created after the 1965 riots. "This company did this on their own," Ueberroth said, "because it should be good business for them to recognize the importance of the inner city."
Earlier the same week in another part of South Central Los Angeles, black activist and entrepreneur Danny Bakewell, president of L.A.'s Brotherhood Crusade, led a coalition of minority contractors who were protesting their exclusion from riot-related demolition and construction by shutting down work sites that employed no African Americans. After one South Central site that had not a single black on a 10-man crew was shut down on a Friday, it was reopened the following Monday with newfound black workers. "Miraculously, black people were born and gained five years' experience," says Bakewell sarcastically.
Ueberroth, the high-profile former Olympresario and baseball commissioner, and Bakewell, a real estate developer turned community organizer, are on opposite ends of the daunting effort to rebuild South Central Los Angeles, torn apart three months ago in the most expensive riots in U.S. history. From his end, Ueberroth recognizes the need to break three decades of redlining, whereby big corporations, banks and insurance companies have systematically shunned South Central L.A. as an unprofitable business venue. From theirs, Bakewell and other black community leaders are struggling to ensure minority inclusion in the rebuilding process -- and ultimately in the renaissance of South Central. "We need a cheerleader like Ueberroth," says black businessman John Bryant. "But while he's working from the top down, there needs to be a lot of people working from the bottom up to meet him halfway."
The going has been tough so far on both ends. The greatest impediment to success, naturally, is money -- where it comes from, how it is spent. The April riots led to more than 6,000 insurance claims totaling $775 million, mostly on commercial property. Now, with more damage in the area from the two major earthquakes on June 28 heaping new claims on insurers and frightening already skittish tourists, funds will be scarcer still.
Last month Ueberroth moved his Rebuild L.A. staff into donated offices downtown and appointed to a still growing 50-member board community, corporate and government representatives, reflecting his "tripod" approach to the task. He says he is committed to breaking down the barriers that have sealed wealth out of the city's minority communities. "It's important that this neighborhood gets greenlined instead of redlined," he proclaims. But in the two months since he became Los Angeles' designated rebuilder, his critics say he has made little progress toward that goal, and they are skeptical that his efforts will be enough to overcome years of discriminatory practices.