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Originally published April 25, 2012 at 10:05 PM | Page modified April 26, 2012 at 6:13 AM

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20 years after riots, flash point has new complexion

Today, Latino immigrants live on blocks that once were the only places blacks were allowed to live. In what once was Los Angeles' center of black culture, Spanish often is the only language heard.

The New York Times

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LOS ANGELES — When racially charged riots blazed two decades ago, South Central became a symbol of rage in a poor black neighborhood.

But the area's population has changed significantly since the acquittals of white police officers in the Rodney King beating inflamed racial tensions across this city.

Today, immigrants from Mexico and Central America live on blocks that once were the only places blacks were allowed to live. In what once was Los Angeles' center of black culture, Spanish often is the only language heard.

Now, signs for "You buy, we fry" fish markets have been replaced by Mexican mariscos and Salvadoran pupuserias. In the historic jazz corridor, where legends once stayed when barred from wealthy white neighborhoods, botanicas sell folk and herbal remedies.

In the 1990s, blacks made up roughly half the population in South Central. Today, Latinos account for about two-thirds of the residents in what is now called South Los Angeles — "Central" officially was scrubbed by the City Council in 2003.

In the 40-some square miles that make up the area, stretching southwest of downtown from Interstate 10 to Interstate 105 and as far west as Inglewood, there are 80,000 fewer blacks than there were in 1990.

"This is a huge, pivotal shift, as important as any other population change or migration we've had in the city," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director at the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles. "It affects the African-American community's sense of self as it sees a geographic core that really matters to people erode. It changes the whole sense of the neighborhood."

For many blacks, the changes represent both a loss of history and a sign of upward mobility. Strains lie mostly below the surface, bubbling up when someone complains about construction jobs taken by illegal immigrants who work for less than minimum wage.

"It's not that I hold it against them to work," said Danny Bakewell, a real-estate developer and civil-rights activist who held protests to shut down construction sites that did not employ blacks. "But if we can't get jobs and make money in our own neighborhood, where can we get them? This is from where we came; there are other people living in it and they are welcome, but this is our community."

South Los Angeles is made up of many neighborhoods. On the west side they largely remain predominantly black and middle class; farther east are mostly immigrants, who often share housing with multiple families.

Starting in the 1980s, many black families began buying up affordable, sprawling homes in then-growing cities such as Riverside in the east and Palmdale in the north.

Still, it is easy to spot signs of the deep history of the black community.

Across the street from the Hotel Dunbar, once the best-known hotel for black elites, is a mural created in 1984 featuring black leaders, including Biddy Mason, a former slave who became one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. At one end of the mural is a small sign reading "Don't move, improve," a reminder of the campaign some leaders waged decades ago.

A few blocks north is Second Baptist Church, host of several NAACP conventions and speeches by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The church remains one of the city's most vibrant black congregations, but few members live in the area now.

The church's preschool program, one of the first created by federal money in the 1960s for low-income families, is almost entirely Latino.

Aside from improvements in relations with police, many community leaders say the most positive change since 1992 is the easing of racial tension. Children whose parents might have looked at each other askance have grown up together. The influx of immigrants has turned into a large population of second-generation Latinos, many trying to bring about improvements that blacks struggled to bring.

Lilian Marenco, 65, who bought a home near the University of Southern California in the 1970s, was one of a handful of Salvadorans in the neighborhood at the time. She has rallied with both black and Latino neighbors to open a new park and a grocery. That sense of cooperation, though, has ebbed, she said.

"There's not a great sense of community; people stay in their own worlds until there is some crisis to bring them together," she said. "It happens with every group. Mexicans say things only to other Mexicans, blacks to blacks."

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