50 years after riots, Watts struggles — cautions Ferguson, Baltimore

Fifty years ago this week, Watts was ablaze. The citizens of this all-Black Los Angeles neighborhood had grown exasperated with that era’s racial inequities, and some lashed out with matches and gasoline. A half-century later, the once-thriving district exhibits little of the revitalization that had been promised and expected.
The people and leaders of Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore (cities that burned after the police-involved deaths of Black men) should take note. They also must rebuild after the incendiary reactions to Michael Brown’s and Freddie Gray’s controversial fatalities.

Can Ferguson and Baltimore learn from Watts’ disheartening legacy? The 1965 episode commonly called the ‘Watts riots’ is, instead, dubbed an ‘uprising’ or ‘rebellion’ (anything but a ‘riot’) by those closely associated redevelopment efforts.

Violence ignited in Watts that August 11, after police officers tangled with a crowd that had gathered around a Black motorist named Marquette Frye, suspected of drunk driving. The ensuing six-day conflagration was fueled largely by the community’s insufferable pain over the bigotry that plagued America, including that two-mile-wide sector of south Los Angeles.

“Watts was the cultural center of L.A.,” Minister Mac Shorty, a seasoned community leader told Urban News Service. “There were more than 30 or 40 Black-owned businesses in Watts. Now, you can count the Black-owned businesses here on one hand. It’s shameful.”

Since ’65, multiple commissions have pledged reconstruction funds, including $1.3 billion for housing redevelopment. Watts still waits. And Shorty, among others, is irate.

“After 50 years, has Watts recovered? No,” Shorty said. “People have been perpetuating a fraud for years, and it’s hurting the community. There’s very little to show in the way of development. There should be more than the Watts Towers and the 103rd Street Park. There’s no major trauma center. Schools continue to suffer. This is something Ferguson and Baltimore and other cities have to look at.”

Chris Jordan, executive director of Grant Housing and Economic Development, moved to Watts in 1965, at age two. His grandmother was the first Black woman to own multiple properties in Watts: a house and an apartment building.
“Watts is home for me, and I can tell you people here are resilient,” Jordan said. “There are areas that have seen progress, and areas that have not. People are ready for change.”

Jordan insists that the improvements that Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities hope to achieve with police already have happened in Watts. “Relations with the LAPD are much better,” he said, “which is totally opposite what it was like in the ’60s. Then, police agitated things. Now it’s a much more amicable relationship.”

But not much else in Watts has appreciated in 50 years. Most businesses that were torched never were replaced. Jobs went up in smoke, literally. Today, public housing projects dominate. Businesses seem uninterested in moving in.

Jordan co-chairs the Watts Reimagined Organization, which attracts resources to Watts.

“When you get away from the real emotions of it all, you allow an opportunity to view hope for Watts,” Jordan said. He points to a coalition of people with a vested interest in Watts’ growth. They are working to secure tangible change.

Jordan cited Grant Housing’s purchase of a blighted, empty building and the creation of the Watts Reimagined Pop Up. This youth facility offers a photo booth, wall climbing, a Watts-history exhibit, an entertainment stage, and more.

“This is something that everyone can see every day as evidence that change is happening in Watts,” Jordan said. “We’re seeing bricks and mortar happening, and that’s encouraging for everyone.”

He said the coalition’s primary goal is to create businesses near the train station*, which is ideally located near freeways**. “Because of Watts’ positioning, we can do a lot of job-building and economic development and make it a place to live and work,” Jordan said. “But it’s not magic. It will take some time. We have to show Watts is a good place for business and that it’s not rampant with crime.”

Homicides in Los Angeles have dropped from more than 1,000 in 1992 to less than 300 in the last two years. Gang intervention programs like Chapter T.W.O. have reduced gang activity, but not eliminated it. Many residents fear leaving home because gangs persist.

LAPD officer Mark Durell told the Los Angeles Times: “We can’t do it all. Everybody thinks, ‘Ah, the cops got to fix.’ [But] it’s the community. It’s everybody.”

Shorty of the Watts Neighborhood Council said a significant local fix, even after 50 years, “would take another 50 years. I won’t see the kind of change this place deserves. I hope my kids see it.”

Jordan disagreed. “I’m very encouraged,” he said. “In six-to-eight months, you’ll see more progress and programs. A lot of plans sat on shelves. We’ve taken the plans and studied them to execute actionable change. It’s not easy. But we’re determined.”