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30 Years After ‘92 Unrest, Little Has Changed At Florence And Normandie

In a sparse line-drawing of an urban intersection, the streets are labeled in large lettering, "Normandie Ave" and "Florence Ave." Black and white photos of dark smoke against the sky are collaged into the illustration.
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad / LAist, photos courtesy of LA Public Library and Tomasz Sroka / Unsplash)
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Three decades after it erupted in violence following the Rodney King verdicts, the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues sits bare in the sun, much like it always has. Traffic rumbles past the corner bus stops, a couple of gas stations, an auto parts store, a liquor store, and what used to be an old chili dog stand.

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30 Years After ‘92 Unrest, Little Has Changed At Florence And Normandie

Perhaps the biggest change has been in its residents: Over the past 30 years, the population has gone from majority Black to majority Latino, a change reflected in the smattering of storefronts along Florence, some of which now have Spanish signage.

But people who live and work around here say in many ways, Florence and Normandie remains much the same as it was in 1992: beset by a lack of investment and resources, and generally neglected.

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One recent afternoon, a few people picked up lunch at the window of a small seafood takeout west of Normandie. Outside the building, a woman slept on the sidewalk.

Longtime resident Marvin Wright said little has changed in the neighborhood over the past 30 years. He said he’d like to see more attention paid to maintaining the streets and to “helping the people that happen to live on the streets.”

Others who live and work at or near Florence and Normandie talked about broken infrastructure, homelessness, gangs, and a lack of investment in the community, retail and otherwise. That, and a general sense of inequity and frustration that has not passed with time.

‘Abandoned’

Many of these same problems were present when anger and frustration boiled over at Florence and Normandie on April 29, 1992, after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King.

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As the intersection turned violent, some people driving through were pulled from their vehicles and beaten, most famously truck driver Reginald Denny. Buildings all around the intersection were set on fire, as they were all over the city.

A black-and-white photo of a Los Angeles street, cars are crossing in the foreground, in the background a building is burning and a large crowd is gathered in front of it.
A scene from an unnamed street during the 1992 civil unrest. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

After the smoke cleared, city leaders promised to rebuild the worst-hit areas and help them thrive, said Manuel Pastor, director of the USC Equity Research Institute.

“Florence and Normandie, because it was so famous, because of the violence that occurred there… it was really thought that this was going to be one of the places that there would be a concentration of investment, to bring grocery stores, to bring economic drivers, and that really didn’t occur,” Pastor said.

At the time, the city built a partnership with business leaders called “Rebuild LA.” The focus was on bringing corporate investment into South L.A., Pastor said, an area that corporate investors had abandoned. The strategy “largely didn’t work,” he said.

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In the years since, there has been significant investment in other parts of South L.A., like the Crenshaw District, Leimert Park and West Adams, areas that will soon be served by a new Metro line.

But help didn’t arrive at Florence and Normandie, Pastor said. The poverty rate there remains about the same as it was in 1990, according to a USC analysis of local census tracts.

There is a pride of ownership in many of the small but tidy homes that line the side streets — something that, accompanied by soaring housing prices, could eventually drive real estate speculation and gentrification, Pastor said. But what would be more desirable is investment that serves the community’s needs and creates local employment.

The few local businesses tend to be tiny mom and pops, along with several auto shops and cannabis dispensaries. There is a grocery store on Vermont Avenue to the east, but that’s a good half-mile away, a long walk for anyone who doesn’t have a car.

“When you live in a place that's disinvested … that was one of the flashpoints of the unrest and was promised so much economic change … [that] didn’t come, what you feel like as a resident is abandoned,” Pastor said.

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‘They Don’t Care About The People’

Just off Florence to the east of Normandie, Marcos Hernandez’s family runs a tiny flower shop from their home.

A cart full of flowers that reads "flowers" with two men in the distant background.
Marcos Hernandez, standing in background, and his parents have a small flower business just off Florence Avenue.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)

Hernandez, who grew up in South L.A. with immigrant parents from Mexico, said the family moved to this location from a nearby neighborhood a couple of years ago.

He pointed to a badly buckled sidewalk outside the entrance.

“I have been seeing a lot of incidents of disabled people falling down right here,” Hernandez said. “We talked to the city, we made a complaint, but I guess we need more than just one person to stand up for that.”

Hernandez said there have been shootings and gang activity nearby, but the family feels helpless to do anything about it.

“What does the police do? Nothing,” he said. “They don’t care about the people.”

Trying To Stay Optimistic

Across Florence, Frank Ojeda and a co-worker tried to move a refrigerator around a truck that was parked illegally on the sidewalk.

“They're not supposed to be there,” said Ojeda, who runs a small shop that fixes and sells used appliances. “We open at nine over here. And they don't remove it.”

Things like illegal parking, trash dumping, poor drainage when it rains, a broken traffic light nearby that he said is taking forever to fix — Ojeda said here, problems like these don’t get addressed quickly.

A man in a black shirt and blue jeans leans against a white refrigerator outside a storefront.
Frank Ojeda runs a small secondhand appliance sales and repair shop in the Florence and Normandie neighborhood.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist )

He pointed to some recently built affordable housing units across the street — that’s great, he said, but what about more social services for the unhoused population in the neighborhood?

Still, Ojeda, who commutes to his shop from home in the San Gabriel Valley, said he likes the community and the rent is affordable. He tries to stay optimistic.

“We are, you know, trying to go up,” he said. “But there are some things that I think they might do a lot more, to make it better.”

On the other side of Normandie, approaching Western Avenue, sits the office of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, or SCOPE. The community nonprofit formed after 1992 to advocate for better living standards in South L.A.

“Our folks want the same things, the basic things that they see in other places, as simple as wanting tree canopies to improve the air, to beautify their community,” said Gloria Medina, SCOPE's executive director.

“They need more green spaces for their family members. They want to have investment in the infrastructure.”

A Young Entrepreneur Has A ‘Vision’

On the northeast corner, Brittany McCalipp agreed that Florence and Normandie feels somewhat forgotten — and that’s one reason she decided to open a business here.

About a year and a half ago, McCalipp, a former waitress and cook, opened her own breakfast stand in the spot that for decades housed Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, which closed in 2020 after 80 years in business.

“I was drawn to it because no one really took time to do anything to this area,” said McCalipp, who was only three when the 1992 unrest occurred.

A young woman in a black shirt and jeans against the wooden boards of a building exterior, with the blue sky in the background.
Brittany McCalipp opened The Breakfast Shack at Florence and Normandie a year and half ago in the space formerly occupied by a decades-old chili dog stand.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)

She was also drawn to the history of the intersection. While McCalipp grew up in the Pasadena area, she has family around Florence and Normandie, and understands its legacy.

The old hot dog stand, she learned, was left alone as other buildings were set on fire.

“I was like, wow, this was a lot of history,” she said. “To be here and knowing that this building was never touched is amazing.”

Relatives in the area warned her it might be tough here — the stand was tagged soon after she opened it. But city workers cleaned it up, and since then, she said, she’s been left alone and is slowly gaining the locals’ respect.

Some still arrive looking for chili dogs, she said. McCalipp rises early each morning to dish up the stand’s new offerings: breakfast sandwiches, breakfast burritos and a few fancier items like shrimp and grits.

Some would-be customers from outside the area have balked at McCalipp’s location: “They're like, ‘Florence and Normandie? Where the riot was? Oh, no, I’m not going over there.”

But as a young Black entrepreneur, this is exactly where she wants to invest, she said.

“I had this vision, and I thought it would be great for the community,” McCalipp said.

She hopes others will eventually join her.

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