Taking Care Of Business

Ask Tampa Bay wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson where he was 10 years ago this week, and he gives you a sheepish grin. "I responded the way most black young men 18 or 19 years old did during that time," says Johnson, now 29, who was attending the University of Southern California on a football scholarship when he learned that his boyhood neighborhood of South-Central was on fire. "I couldn't sit home and watch it on television. I think everyone around there was thinking, 'What do we have to lose?' South-Central was hell way before the riots."

Whenever Johnson returns, he's reminded of a poor childhood spent sleeping in cars and serving time in juvie. And so it is with a measure of pride on this trip that he arrives at a new shopping center he helped get built at the corner of Western and Slauson, just down the road from where the riots first erupted. In other parts of L.A., this 275,000-square-foot stucco expanse with its British-sounding name, Chesterfield Square, might seem like just another gigantic strip mall, complete with a Home Depot, Radio Shack and a Starbucks. But here, in the heart of South-Central, it is something more rare: a promise fulfilled.

In the national hangover after the riots, government and business planned to transform this area into a model for urban renewal. But those efforts collapsed. Johnson says he's neither surprised nor upset: "You have to do for yourself. That's the way the world works." Johnson, of course, has never been one to hold his tongue: this is the same player who once blasted his fellow New York Jets with a book titled "Just Give Me the Damn Ball."

Chesterfield Square--which at a cost of $75 million is the biggest retail venture in South-Central since the riots--really represents a homecoming for Johnson, who took his cue from Magic Johnson's inner-city investments. It used to be that "finding a nice mall with nice clothes meant riding three buses," says Johnson, who put $500,000 into a partnership with a local black developer and helped woo investors with his star appeal.

Nationwide, inner-city residents possess $331 billion in annual purchasing power, according to a 1999 survey. "I just keep talking until people see that there's good money to be made in all these communities," says Johnson, whose next project is a more upscale mall for black shoppers nearby. "Money is money, and it shouldn't matter where the people are with it." Just give him the damn mall.