It was the most extraordinary conjuring feat in modern American political history. The spring presidential primary season had barely opened when a volcano of Black rage and Latino alienation erupted in the streets of Los Angeles. Elite Marine and Army units fresh from the Gulf War had to be landed to restore order to the bungalows of Compton and Watts. While the world press editorialized apocalyptically about the ‘decline of America’, a grim-faced procession of inner-city leaders from Oakland to BedfordStuyvesant warned that their neglected neighbourhoods too were tinderboxes awaiting a spark. They recalled the 164 major riots—the ‘Second Civil War’ some warned at the time—that spread through urban ghettoes like wildfire for three summers after the original ‘Watts’ rebellion in 1965.

The presidential candidates, meanwhile, jostled each other for the photo opportunity of squaring their jaws amidst the smoking ruins of New Jack City. President Bush found meetings with residents ‘very emotional, very moving’ and vowed that government had ‘an absolute responsibility to solve inner-city problems’.footnote1 As the campaign promises flowed like honey, political columnist William Schneider reassured local leaders that ‘hundreds of millions of dollars will be funneled into la’. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, applauded President Bush and the House Democrats for joining together to take ‘swift action to bring relief to the nation’s cities’.footnote2

Yet within weeks, and before a single scorched minimall had actually been rebuilt, the Second Los Angeles Riot, as well as the national urban-racial crisis that it symbolized, had been virtually erased from political memory banks. The Bush administration’s ‘new fervour’ for urban reform quickly re-cooled into glacial indifference. When the us Conference of Mayors, for example, brought 200,000 marchers to the Capitol on 16 May under the banner ‘Save Our Cities, Save Our Children!’, White House Press Secretary Martin Fitzwater simply shrugged his shoulders and complained, ‘I don’t know anything about it. We have marches every weekend’. The major palliative that Bush offered distressed cities in his stump speeches was an authoritarian ‘Weed and Seed’ plan to place job training and community development funds under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department’s war on gangs. Vice-president Quayle, meanwhile, haughtily advised Mayor Bradley that if he really wanted to rebuild Los Angeles he should raise money by selling off the city’s international airport.footnote3

Amongst the Democrats only Jerry Brown remained an outspoken, if late-in-the-day, advocate of the big city mayors and their constituencies. His defeat in the June California primary ended, for all intents and purposes, further debate on urban poverty or the future of the cities. In the sharpest break yet with New Deal ideology, the 1992 Democratic Platform, drafted by Clinton supporters under new rules that eliminated formal amendment and vote-taking, scrapped traditional rhetoric about urban needs in favour of Republican-sounding emphases on capital formation and tax breaks for entrepreneurs. Clinton himself carefully ‘tiptoe[d] around the issues of urban problems and race’. Every direct question about the Los Angeles uprising or the cities’ fiscal crisis was met with neutered technobabble about ‘micro-enterprise zones’ and ‘infrastructure’.footnote4

Listening to the fall presidential debates, it was almost impossible to avoid the suspicion that all three camps, including Perot redux, were acting in cynical concert to exclude a subject that had become mutually embarrassing. The word ‘city’—now colour-coded and worrisome to the candidates’ common suburban heartland—was expunged from the exchanges. Thus the thousand-pound gorilla of the urban crisis was simply and consensually conjured out of sight. Indeed, if the verdict of the 1992 election is taken seriously, the big cities, once the very fulcrum of the Rooseveltian political universe, have been demoted to the status of a scorned and impotent electoral periphery.

For the weary populations of Detroit or Buffalo this may be old news. But in Los Angeles, which until recently had been preoccupied with fantasies of becoming the Byzantium of the Pacific Rim, it was a brutal shock. To the incredulity of local observers, the spring riots proved to be almost non-negotiable political currency outside Southern California. If the ‘white backlash’ turned out to be more subdued than predicted, there was, symmetrically, very little national sympathy with Los Angeles’ problems or its quest for state and federal aid. Its own affluent suburbs helped sabotage a bipartisan ‘urban rescue’ bill in Congress, while the Governor and legislature in Sacramento figuratively burned down the city a second time with billions of dollars of school and public-sector cutbacks.

Unexpectedly left to their own devices in the thick of the worst economic crisis since 1938, Los Angeles’ elites have invested inflated hopes in Rebuild la (rla), the corporate coalition headed by Peter Ueberroth, the czar of the 1984 Olympics who was given a virtually messianic mandate by Mayor Tom Bradley to save Los Angeles. When it became clear that the city would not receive any significant aid from either Sacramento or Washington, Ueberroth dramatically announced that rla’s corporate sponsors had already pledged more than a billion dollars in a new investment for Los Angeles’ inner-city neighbourhoods. Quick-witted reporters, however, immediately interviewed Ueberroth’s corporate Good Samaritans, half of whom emphatically denied making any such commitment. In the eyes of many, rla was thereby exposed as the philanthropic equivalent of the classic Ponzi scheme: mendaciously pyramiding false promises into purely fictitious community ‘rebuilding’.