Watts, rising

National | For most Americans, the name "Watts" is synonymous with "riots" and "drive-by shootings," but the notorious L.A. neighborhood isn't what it used to be

Issue: "Bush wins one," June 9, 2001

Editor's note: This spring, race riots rocked Cincinnati after police shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old black man who was fleeing arrest. In the same city, on April 4, 1968, rioting erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But despite a pair of riots decades apart, racial violence doesn't define the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. It does, however, seem to define one California community with a similar history: Watts, Los Angeles. Nine years ago, in 1992, hundreds of rioters looted and burned South Central Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four white police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King. When some looting spilled over into Watts, scene of the infamous riots of 1965, the tiny neighborhood's reputation as a racial pressure-cooker was reignited. But does Watts today really live down to its decades-old image as a gangland ghetto? A special WORLD report ... in Los Angeles-Would you like to buy a love poem or praise song for a dollar?" asked Mabel Hansbrough, 55, a narrow-faced, light-skinned black woman with a tight cap of hair. She paced in the portico of the Alma Reaves Woods Library in the Watts section of Los Angeles; above her, a bright mural depicting black and Latino children in cap-and-gown unfurled on the building's eves. Rail-thin in a cherry-red sweater, orange lipstick, and fluttering leopard-skin scarf, Mrs. Hansbrough resembles a chattering May pole. "The Lord blessed me to keep myself busy writing these poems, so I just try to sell them when I can," she chirped above cars whooshing by on Compton Avenue. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop-oooh girl, yes indeed, uh-huh! I just came from a prayer meeting at the church-pastor made me president of the prayer group, you know-we're going to pray for the addicts and the dealers in the neighborhood. I been in Watts three months and it is bad, uh-huh. But we're going to do a wonderful job in the name of Jesus!" Across the parking lot, Daniel Washington patrolled the gleaming lobby of Watts' new Civic Center. The 24-year-old security guard grew up a few miles away in the L.A. community of Inglewood. But his aunt and grandma have lived in Watts for 50 years, and Mr. Washington often played in these streets as a boy. "It's a lot different now," he said, gazing through sparkling plate glass, down Compton Avenue and into the past. "I remember a lot of young kids wearing gang colors, and people chasing each other down the street. You don't see that anymore. It's a lot better now." Standing on the same side of the same street in the same hour, Mrs. Hansbrough and Mr. Washington hold different views of Watts. Both are right. The name "Watts" is still synonymous with "riots," and the neighborhood that helped to add "drive-by shooting" to the national lexicon still struggles with poverty and crime. But Watts, just three miles square, is also a repository of African-American and Hispanic history. It boasts famous sons and daughters like plutonium discoverer/Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg and Olympic track star Florence Griffith-Joyner. Many entrepreneurs and hardworking families make their homes here by choice. By most accounts, things are getting better, slowly, as proud people strain toward a better future. People like Nadine Perry and Karen Odum. Last month, the two sisters, both single moms, graduated from Compton College's early childhood development (ECD) program. Each earned a certificate representing 30 quarter-hours of training-enough to guarantee them shots at education-related jobs well above minimum wage. Ms. Perry, 36, a fiery talker with a full head of long, shining braids, hopes to open her own day-care center. The L.A. Unified School District has already offered Ms. Odum a job as a special education teaching assistant. But getting here was no picnic. Through Family Helpline, a grassroots Christian group that helps needy people in South Central L.A., the sisters heard that Compton College offered ECD extension classes in neighborhoods all over South Central-nearly everywhere, in fact, except for Watts. Transportation and child-care needs tied Ms. Perry and Ms. Odum to their own neighborhood; with the aid of Family Helpline and another community group, they lobbied the college to form a class at Helpline's facility on Century Boulevard. College officials were skeptical about setting up shop in Watts, a neighborhood whose reputation is aptly summed up in the title of an autobiography by conservative black activist and former welfare recipient Star Parker: Pimps, Whores and Welfare Brats (Pocket Books 1998). Still, Compton College eventually agreed to provide the ECD class, but set up strict stipulations on enrollment (the school would provide an instructor only if 20 students enrolled) and attendance. Ms. Odum notes proudly that not 20, but 40 students enrolled in the six-night-per-week course last October. Nearly all-including two men and a mother who attends class with her teenage daughter-will graduate in May. "A lot of people thought our class wouldn't even last," Ms. Perry told WORLD. Such cognitive redlining frustrates many people who live here. "People think because you're in Watts that you don't want to do better, that you're not a real person with hopes and dreams," Ms. Perry said angrily: "I'm tired of people judging me by my zip code." For many Americans, that zip code is synonymous with violence. Its reputation sprouted on Aug. 11, 1965, at 7:05 p.m., when two white highway patrol officers arrested Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old black man, for driving while intoxicated. The arrest occurred just outside Watts, and drew a crowd of curious onlookers. When Mr. Frye resisted arrest, a struggle ensued and the milling crowd grew angry. One police officer, who later claimed to be swinging at Mr. Frye's shoulder, instead whacked his forehead with a nightstick. With that blow, decades of resentment born of poverty, racial segregation, housing discrimination, and unemployment boiled over. Over the next 144 hours more than 8,000 rioters looted, burned, and shot up a massive chunk of the city; the "Watts Riot" started in Watts and spread over a 46.5-square-mile section of southeastern Los Angeles. Thirty-four people died, 1,000 were injured, and the area sustained $40 million in property damage. The mayhem defined "Watts" in the public consciousness. Ozie Gonzaque remembers the labeling. Mrs. Gonzaque, who is now Chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the Los Angeles Housing Authority, moved to Watts in 1944 at age 17. She remembers when Watts was a collection of scrubby, green fields, mixed ethnic neighborhoods and jazz clubs on the outskirts of L.A.. She remembers crawdadding with her sisters, porch-chatting with her Italian and Japanese neighbors, and horseback-riding at Jack's Riding Academy, which used to sit right about where the mammoth government housing project Nickerson Gardens sits now. She also remembers the aftermath of the Watts riot: "It was devastating to all of us. This community was portrayed as a jungle, as people having no respect for anyone else." One day shortly after the unrest, she found her children sitting in front of the television, crying. "Mother, look what they're putting on," they told her. "They're making it look like we're all animals who live here." The portrayal continued through the next two decades, as gunfire became Watts' soundtrack. The community became a destination for immigrating Hispanics-about two-thirds of Watts residents now are Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau-and interracial tension escalated, spawning murderous turf wars between rival gangs. The hip-hop music culture so glorified gang life that soon the regular families who make up the majority of the community-some on welfare, some working poor, some working and not-so-poor-were subsumed by an image of Watts as one giant Ice T music video. On April 29, 1992, fresh rioting turned up the heat under Watts' simmering image. South Central L.A. burst into flames and violence when a jury acquitted four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Journalists, being fond of historical symmetry, immediately drew parallels with the rioting of 1965. And though the Rodney King riots barely spilled over into Watts, and then only in the form of scattered, opportunistic looting, the community's reputation as a racial pressure-cooker was effectively dragged back to the front burner. "The Watts image sells papers," said Leon Watkins, an ordained minister and founder of Family Helpline. "There's been a lot of negative publicity coming out of this one little area for many years. Once people latch onto that image, they don't want to hear about anything else. It's kind of romantic in a way, kind of sexy: 'You mean you went there?'" But the Watts image no longer matches the reality in the streets. Over the past decade, community agencies, including police, housing-project officials, churches, and community redevelopment workers have worked cooperatively to ferret out and erase blight. "People here formed a coalition," said Reginald Pope, senior pastor at Bethel Missionary Church, who has ministered here for 25 years. "Years ago, one agency would refer you to another, then that agency would refer you to another and another. By the time anything got done, the kids [involved] were either grown, gone, in jail, or dead. Now it takes less time to notice and bust a dope house than it used to." Still, drugs remain big business here. At Nickerson Gardens, a 1000-unit complex that holds as many people as some small towns, drugs have replaced murder as the crime du jour. The development's barracks-like black-and-white buildings march down wide, shady avenues. Each unit has a small stoop and front yard. Most of the large, clothesline-strung courtyards that divide the buildings are well kept, though tenants have piled rusting bicycles and appliances behind a few units. Trash skitters across a couple of lawns. Chuck Bunn, 38, is a police officer with the Los Angeles Housing Authority, the agency that administers subsidized housing in the county. A black man who grew up in South Central L.A., Mr. Bunn has worked 17 years with this academy-trained, gun-toting force-about seven of those at Nickerson. When he started here, the place was so violent that L.A.P.D. officers preferred to descend in squad strength. Murder was common; assault, rape, and robbery were part of daily life. These days, there's "less homicide, more narcotics," Mr. Bunn said, peering through dark glasses and lifting an arm above his holstered .45 to wave to a resident across the street: "There are a lot of drug houses in the place-drugs take over whole units." But criminality at Nickerson has gone underground and no longer defines life in the development. Maintenance employees here say there is less fear and more community pride. Mr. Bunn says there's greater cooperation between police and residents. Still, Watts' juveniles are sucked easily into the remaining criminal subculture, Mr. Bunn says, "when they see how fast and easy it is to get money selling drugs." Rev. Pope's nephew Mark Pope was one kid who wasn't sucked in. A child of "the projects," Mark grew up in the housing development Jordan Downs, the son of a single mom. As a teenager, he roamed Watts' streets at a time when wearing the wrong color in the wrong part of town might mean a bullet in the head. But as Mark grew, Rev. Pope concentrated on exerting a male Christian influence (a mix of "hard counseling and head-thumping," he calls it) in his life. Meanwhile Mark watched a seamier alternative unfold in the streets. At age 20 he told Rev. Pope: "You know, most of the kids I grew up with are either dead or in jail. I don't want that to happen to me." It didn't. Now an officer with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, Mark works in the county's court system in the city of Torrance. Rev. Pope believes Mark's Christian upbringing-and his mother's insistence on healthy male role models despite her singlehood-seeded his success. To sow similar seeds, Bethel and other area churches have launched twice-monthly meetings where men are taught what the Bible has to say about manhood and family responsibility. At Bethel, women are reaping the fruit: Men are taking more responsibility and paying more attention to their children, Rev. Pope says. And more are marrying. "Even some in their 20s who had been cohabiting are coming forth to get married. The women are telling me, 'I don't know what you're telling [the men] up there, but they're coming back acting much better!'" Civic improvements may echo those occurring inside Watts homes. The neighborhood's topography is no longer the crumbling shambles of movie lore. Instead it's increasingly braided, with strands of decay offset by strands of budding renewal. For example, South Central Avenue, a gateway to the community from the 105 freeway, is a hodge-podge of disjointed-looking storefronts. Virgil's Beauty Salon-a dingy, white building with a purplish, hand-lettered sign-squats near the long, low edifice of Turner's Poultry and Fish, which only a couple of months ago quit selling live chickens at curbside. Turner's leads on to a scrap metal dealer where old I-beams, poles, rails, and corrugated metal siding are piled as high as the building's roof in plain view of the street. Out front, a black woman and two men lounge in straight-backed kitchen chairs. One man swigs occasionally from a bottle in a brown paper sack. But over on 103rd Street, it's a different story. Ted Watkins Park spreads clean and green for several acres. Across the street sit rows of well-kept, single-family homes. A mile to the south, the corner of Compton and 103rd is home to a tidy fire station, a new post office, the Civic Center, and the Alma Reaves Woods Library. And a few blocks west, the "Cultural Crescent"-a series of parks, fountains, and an amphitheater where an international jazz festival is held each year-sweeps through the neighborhood, looping past a strand of newer, privately owned homes. Home ownership in South Central Los Angeles has increased by about a third over the past decade, according to the L.A. Housing Department. Most Watts residents can't afford to buy homes and still rent, many from Uncle Sam. But Community Redevelopment Agency head William Price says home ownership initiatives here are helping to stabilize the area. One such program makes available to low-income families a special mortgage loan that equals 60 percent of a home's purchase price. The remaining loan value is financed through a federal funding program. Other home-ownership programs include Habitat for Humanity and also "site rehabs," in which existing homes are refurbished, or demolished to make room for new houses on old lots. Arturo Ybarra, head of the Watts Century Latino Organization, believes increasing home ownership in Watts is a sign of positive change that may be permanent. "When someone living in a rat nest is suddenly living in an independent house where they can breathe, where their children can play, where they can have a garden, you see a big change," said Mr. Ybarra. "Families tend to get more involved in schools, public safety, and in the community." Mr. Ybarra is stoking that involvement, marshalling parents and students to hold Watts' public schools accountable for the kind of education they provide. "We have high-school graduates here who don't know how to read or write," Mr. Ybarra said. "We have to change the way our children are educated. If we don't do that, the future of our children will be a future of slaves. Modern slaves, but slaves nonetheless." Watts Century Latino Organization is just one of several grassroots groups working to improve the community. Over on Lou Dillon Avenue, "Sweet Alice" Harris operates more than a dozen programs from eight houses she's purchased for the purpose, one by one, since the mid-1960s. Her group, called "Parents of Watts" (POW), offers emergency food and shelter, drug counseling, foster-care placement, job training, and a program for unwed mothers. The faith-based group Family Helpline has for 17 years extended aid to the needy here, and currently runs a child-care licensing program to help women start their own businesses and achieve financial independence. Will such groups have to dilute their programs' spirituality to qualify for funding under President Bush's faith-based charities plan? Helpline's Leon Watkins isn't concerned about that. But he does worry that the grassroots of small charities like his might be choked out by Washington's bureaucratic jungle. "The larger agencies can dominate the available resources," he said, fingering a worn Bible on the desk in his tiny, crowded Century Boulevard office. "Whoever can lobby the best and whoever has the manpower and resources to write grant requests, that's who will get the funding." If that happens, Rev. Watkins fears disillusionment with the Bush plan will set in among the poor. Some remain disillusioned with economic conditions in Watts. According to the L.A. Housing Authority, the median family income among housing development residents ranges from $7,000 to $11,000 annually. At $16,000 to $22,000, wages community-wide aren't much better. And unemployment rates in South Central L.A. are nearly double the countywide rate of 5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Welfare reform has helped some Watts residents find work. But a 1999 report by the Economic Roundtable, an L.A. think tank, reveals a good news/bad news outcome for GAIN, Los Angeles County's welfare-to-work program. While GAIN significantly increased employment rates among participants during 1990 through 1998, most GAIN workers landed low-paying jobs in low-wage industries. To help welfare recipients find better-paying work, GAIN now is incorporating a job-training focus in its programs. Community leaders say welfare reform is taking hold here in the form of a slow migration to a stronger work ethic. For some residents that ethic is born of pride: Refusing to be shoved forcibly off the public assistance roost, women in particular are seeking work and education opportunities outside the shelter of the state's welfare-to-work umbrella, according to GAIN supervisor Kathy Odum. Bethel Missionary Church's Rev. Pope said some families in his church have found that work brings with it a peace that welfare never did. To survive, some once subsidized their government subsidies by selling narcotics. "To have someone in your family trafficking in drugs brings with it violence and danger," he said. "For a family to get to the place economically where they no longer have to look over their shoulder is in itself a relief." Nadine Perry looks forward to economic changes now that she has her certificate in Early Childhood Development from Compton College. "All my life I've never had a choice or an option. I've always had to take whatever job or money other people would give me. With these ECD units, I can work as a teacher's aide, in a day-care or open my own day-care," she told WORLD, her eyes sparkling with possibilities: "Now I have a choice."

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Life with Lyme

    For long-term Lyme patients, treatment is a matter of…


    Job-seeker friendly

    Southern California churches reach the unemployed through job fairs