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In L.A., Dreams Of Sunshine Became A Nightmare

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Commentator John Ridley moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, not long before the riots.

Look, I was always going to end up in Los Angeles. From the time I was a kid in Wisconsin, for me, L.A. was the city. It had sunshine, palm trees, a black mayor, even a police force whose legend was preached nightly on hit TV shows.

I ended up in New York first, which turned out to be a harsh substitute. I hit the city in the mid-1980s, just in time for a seemingly endless string of tabloid-ready racial incidents: Bernie Goetz, Howard Beach, the Central Park Jogger, Yusuf Hawkins.

By the early 1990s, I finally got myself to Los Angeles — that sunshine and those palm trees. I also got warnings from friends both black and white that L.A.'s melting pot image was as shaky as any Hollywood facade, and that L.A. cops had a tendency to get badge-heavy. Never mind the red-carpet glitz — areas of the city were as segregated as any Deep South municipality.

But my blinders were secure.

Living in denial of the bigger picture was easy in a city that distracted with its limitless possibilities. You could sell a movie pitch to a studio, get spotted in a diner by a casting director or receive a random call from Spielberg. So things were in the toilet across town? So what? As big as L.A. was, problems like poverty and police brutality seemed like they were happening to some other people in some other place.

And then there was Rodney King and his trial, followed by riots and the mob beating of Reginald Denny. The problems of the city weren't other people's — they were all of ours. On the first night of the riots, we huddled together on street corners and watched the billowing smoke of arson fires. We sat glued to our TVs, wondering how bad things would get. In the days after the uprising, we navigated around billeted National Guardsmen while pitching in to clean up broken glass and charred wood.

Twenty years on, I no longer have illusions about Los Angeles. I've quit believing that the sunshine and the star power amount to anything more than a harsh, white light that blinds us to reality. Two decades after Rodney King, underlying issues of inequality and stunted achievement still persist. Too many black high school students in L.A. drop out, while the unemployment rate among blacks has grown higher since the riots.

But 20 years ago, I was just a transplant. Now I'm a resident. Where I used to just have dreams in my heart, now I've got skin in the game. The plan is no longer about how L.A. can make me big. It's about how all of us can make L.A. better.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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