There’s been much reflection on the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—at least five films, and ample plaudits and criticism, more of the latter, on rebuilding efforts under nonprofit organization Rebuild L.A.
Peter Ueberroth, chairman of Newport Beach-based private equity firm The Contrarian Group who’d gained fame and clout as organizer of the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A. and as baseball commissioner from 1984 to 1989, volunteered for the tall order—as did business partner Joel Rubenstein and many others.
Ueberroth headed Rebuild L.A., which was set up by Mayor Tom Bradley, for one year.
More than 1,000 buildings had been destroyed in the riots, and more than $1 billion in property damage done in Los Angeles alone. City Hall and LAPD brass were effectively not talking.
At the time of the riots, the city ranked first in the U.S. in murders committed with firearms. Today, it ranks third behind Chicago and Philadelphia. The numbers are far better for violent crime in general. The FBI’s latest statistics, from 2015, don’t rank L.A. in the Top 25 of the most dangerous big U.S. cities.
The Business Journal spoke to Ueberroth, a member of our OC 50 list of the most influential people in Orange County (see related stories, this page and page 8) about his time at Rebuild L.A. and his assessment of the private-sector effort charged with economic surgery on a bleeding city at a critical time.
Here are edited excerpts of his responses:
Business Journal: By your reckoning, was Rebuild L.A. a success?
Ueberroth: Before the riots, L.A. was a mess—then you have riots, and the police department isn’t available. The outcome would have been much different if it wasn’t for Tom Bradley. He had to get the private sector to help. We raised $600 million in short order. Do I think our effort was successful? It was enormously successful.
Business Journal: What are the things and people you point to that made the effort successful?
Ueberroth: Look, there were parts of L.A. where you couldn’t cash a check without being ripped off. The city is alive now—now people want to live in downtown L.A. It doesn’t rank number one anymore with murder rates of other cities. L.A. is a different place, and when the private sector is involved, it’s a different city.
Business Journal: Any acts of kindness that stand out 25 years later?
Ueberroth: Two individuals put $5 million checks in my mailbox. One was Kirk Kerkorian—may he rest in peace. The other is still alive and asked to remain anonymous. All kinds of people stepped up without being asked. John Hope Bryant [Compton native and entrepreneur who started Operation HOPE after the riots], took busloads of businesspeople to every spot of total destruction.
Business Journal: Beyond Bradley, Bryant, folks like longtime Urban League President John Mack have defended the economic-development portion of the reconstruction of L.A.—which is basically Rebuild L.A.—but you know there are critics, too. They say the area around the flashpoint, Florence and Normandie, is still blighted, and some of the more prolific ventures, like the Toyota Training Center, have closed.
Ueberroth: I don’t know. What’s the objective? You have to have something else to talk about, something positive besides devastation. I think we accomplished that. And we knew going in we were going to be criticized. For me, where does RLA rank in terms of accomplishments? It ranks No. 1. But it starts with Tom Bradley. There should be books written about this man. The mayor had a telephone bank, and there were 40 people in there. He called in every favor.
Business Journal: Do you have some fond memories of Rebuild L.A.?
Ueberroth: So many in the group have gone on to do special things. It was hardly just Joel and me. There were 50 cars going in there every day. Yes, some people observed, but a lot of people did a lot of good things. This was a group that was supposed to be there one year. Some stayed for four—they weren’t allowed to stay longer. There were language problems in places like Koreatown, but we overcame them. It was fun.
Weitzner is incoming Orange County Business Journal editor.