Los Angeles: Home Sweet Home
By Hyungwon Kang
Los Angeles is home to my family.
I grew up in L.A., met and married my wife Daisy in L.A., and the first two of our children were born in L.A. My grandmother’s grave is at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, where the late pop star Michael Jackson is also interred. My mother still lives in her Koreatown home where she maintains an immaculate organic vegetable garden.
As far as I remember, there were always risks to living in L.A. In my 8th grade, three big boys ganged up on me, punching me in the chest and stole my Schwinn BMX bike. In the 1990’s, when I was on the staff of the Los Angeles Times, we all had extra chain-locks to secure our company-issued car trunks, to slow down any would-be robbers.
Losing property to thugs and robbers is one thing, but during the 1992 L.A. Riots, many victims lost something more important, their American Dreams.
“Before getting shot, I had an American Dream, after (being) shot, I lived scared, no more dreams, I have had health problems. I’ve been scared a lot and it took at least 20 years for me to relax and be OK,” said Frank Park, who was shot in the neck during the 4-29 riots.
Another family’s American Dream was also shattered. Eddie Lee, the third generation only son of his family, was killed during the second night of the L.A. Riots. His three friends, who all suffered gunshots while riding in the same car with Eddie, had their American Dream shattered and have been suffering with years’ of health problems arising from the injuries, physical, emotional and mental problems.
John Kim, who was only 18 when he witnessed his friend Eddie die before him, was in tears when he talked about not being able to pay a courtesy visit to his buddy Eddie’s Mom. “I’m the one who went to pick him up from his home that night when he was killed,” said Kim, choking up.
During the dangerous and unpredictable riots, I too came close to becoming a victim several times. A man with a baseball bat chased me down when I tried to document people looting during the first night. My car was hit with bricks and beer bottles when I drove through Florence & Normandie where other drivers and journalists weren’t so lucky to escape without injuries. My wife was terrified not knowing where I was during the first three days and nights of the riots.
Five years later, I thought my life had moved on when I left Los Angeles for a new job in Washington DC in 1997. But I couldn’t help but keep in touch with some of my contacts. I too couldn’t forget the 4-29 riots.
Meeting up with one of my most famous subjects, Mr. Cornelius Pettus, was no easy task this time around. I last saw him 15 years ago when he was still running his market in South Central L.A.. but since I left L.A., and he sold his store, we had lost contact and he was unreachable. Through an extensive search, I was able to find his home address.
When I finally sat down with him. He shared his story of four robberies and one shooting that left both of his legs and a wrist bullet pierced. He slept for a week at his store during the 1992 riots to fend off looters and robbers while his wife brought him food. At least he survived. The man who bought Pettus’ store was shot to death during a robbery within nine months of ownership.
Juri Kang (unrelated to my family – Kang is a popular family name among Koreans) was only 10 years old when her family’s gas station-mini-market was looted and burned down during the riots. Her suffering, which began six months before the Riots when she was shot in the chest point-blank at age nine, still continues. Juri Kang still walks around with a bullet lodged in her bones. Despite the outrage over the shooting in both the Korean and black communities her shooter was never caught, and her parents have never recovered from the devastating loss to their family business.
There’s a saying “In 10 years, even mountains and rivers change.” After 20 years, I needed to speak with people who still had some institutional memory of the riots. I spoke with an LAPD veteran officer and a Captain who both recalled the Riots.
LAPD Senior Lead Officer James Chong, a bilingual speaker who grew up in Koreatown in the 1970′s, and I share an almost parallel life experience. His parents ran a liquor store in a predominantly black community in South Los Angeles/Long Beach border. My father ran a Unocal 76 gas station in Inglewood a couple of blocks from the Forum, former home of the L.A. Lakers. Magic Johnson was one of our regulars. Since the LAPD Olympic Station opened in Koreatown in 2009, crime in Koreatown area has been visibly reduced, according to officer Chong. While I was at the Olympic police station, the new unified police district that replaced the two local police districts that used to share responsibility for Koreatown, a Korean American shopowner turned in a handgun that he had purchased some 20 years ago saying “I don’t have any use for this anymore.”
A veteran journalist who has covered race relations in the U.S. since the 1950’s, Mr. K.W. Lee was also in Los Angeles for the occasion to help articulate the state of Los Angeles in 2012.
I ended up investing a lot more time videotaping interviews than taking still pictures. The multimedia responsibility was time consuming but it also enabled me to discuss more substantive issues with my subjects. It turned out to be a lot more complete visual storytelling experience than if I had only taken still pictures. As painful and as long as the recovery has been, having reacquainted myself with LA, I can say that LA is truly reborn, like a phoenix from the riot’s ashes.