By Stan Watson
Los Angeles (CNN) – On April 29, 1992, the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in south Los Angeles became a flashpoint for one of the worst riots in U.S. history.
It was the site where Reginald Denny, a white trucker, was savagely attacked by a mob after the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American.
When the rioting was over, more than 3,000 structures and businesses were destroyed, leaving $1 billion in property damage and 54 people killed.
In the immediate aftermath of the riots, many considered south Los Angeles an economic wasteland. But John Hope Bryant saw an opportunity for economic empowerment.
Bryant is the founder of Operation Hope, a financial literacy and small business development program formed after the riots. He led a convoy of bankers, businesses leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs on a bus tour Tuesday to survey the past and recognize economic progress in south Los Angeles 20 years later.
While manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles have declined from 700,000 to 370,000 since 1992, according to the L.A. County Economic Development Corp., Bryant remains optimistic about future economic growth in areas hardest hit by the rioting.
“Over the 20 years since the 1992 riots, over $1 billion have been invested in our underserved communities in and around south Los Angeles,” he said.
In many areas where urban blight and hostility between the Los Angeles Police Department and mostly African-American residents contributed to the urban unrest in 1992, businesses and shopping centers have replaced entire corridors once reduced to ashes.
Bryant has served as an adviser on economic empowerment to the past three U.S. presidents and is on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability.
He acknowledged that high unemployment and access to capital for small businesses has stifled the economic recovery but said there are visible symbols of urban renewal that offer optimism about a full recovery.
“We believe that you cannot have a rainbow without a storm first, and no doubt, 20 years later, while real problems remain to be solved in our underserved communities, south Los Angeles and its surrounding communities have made great strides from the chaos to becoming a community,” he said.
As part of the anniversary tour, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa dedicated an elementary school in honor of music icon Quincy Jones, who joined the bus tour.
Speaking to a group of elementary students on the campus that once stood surrounded by ruins, Jones described the tour as a humbling experience.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t have any role models,” he said.
“When I was a child at your age, there was no way I could even dream about a school named after me,” Jones said, adding that he grew up in a racially segregated section of south Chicago where gangsters once controlled the streets.