By Joseph Devall
South Los Angeles residents have long scorned the pervasiveness of liquor stores in their community. During the 1992 civil unrest, liquor stores emerged as a leading target for looting and arson above electronic, grocery, furniture and other stores.
While liquor stores continue to be a problem in South L.A., the work of residents and Community Coalition over the last twenty years has helped spur widespread attention on how they operate and how they contribute to crime and violence.
More Than Alcohol
By the time of the unrest, South L.A. had over 700 licensed liquor outlets for 600,000 residents. It had more liquor outlets than thirteen entire states, including Rhode Island, according to a study by the South Central Organizing Committee, a coalition of local churches, in the mid 1980s.
The availability of alcohol was not the only problem with so many liquor stores.
“The liquor store served as a hub. Customers bought alcohol as well as pipes, drug paraphernalia or even actual drugs on site. Stores would encourage public consumption and loitering by providing cups of ice and couches for people to sit,” said Joanne Kim, chief operating officer of Community Coalition, a South L.A.-based organization that has been nationally recognized for its successful community-driven efforts to reduce the concentration of alcohol.
Long time South L.A. resident Justine Clardy, who lived next to the notorious Bloom’s Liquor Store on Normandie and 39th, recalled the experience. “Before we shut down the liquor store it was frightening. People would go back and forth from the liquor store drinking beer, throwing their trash on my property. People would stand outside my gate. I remember regularly hearing hollering, fighting and screaming, followed by police sirens throughout the night.”
Rebuild Without Liquor
Many believed that the attack on liquor stores during the unrest was simply an expression of anti-Korean sentiment. The shooting death of a young African-American girl, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean storeowner the year before heightened tensions between the two communities, Kim acknowledged.
“But the targeting of liquor stores during the unrest primarily reflected people’s anger at the impact these businesses had on deteriorating the neighborhood. That’s why stores owned by non-Koreans were also burned and looted,” she said.
“On April 28, over one hundred Community Coalition members and residents met with the zoning administrator about our concerns with liquor outlets in the community,” said Sylvia Castillo, former associate director, who led the Coalition’s liquor store campaign. “The next day the city exploded and hundreds of liquor stores were burned to the ground.”
The city decided to fast track the rebuilding of destroyed businesses, including liquor stores. “We saw this as an opportunity for residents to enforce community standards by shaping what businesses were going to rebuild and how they would conduct business,” Castillo said. “We mobilized thousands of residents to city hearings and rallies to express their concerns.”
The community successfully forced the city to conduct public hearings on all businesses about which residents lodged complaints. Residents prevented the rebuilding of 150 liquor stores and converted nearly 50 of the 200 burned into other non-alcohol related businesses.
“We still have too many liquor stores, but through our campaign we asserted the rights of residents to hold the city accountable to address problem businesses that threaten public safety and deteriorate the quality of life in their neighborhoods,” Kim said.
Joseph Devall is the organizing director at Community Coalition.