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The supposed ‘rebirth’ of Watts makes Jordan Downs residents uneasy

At a ceremonial groundbreaking three months ago in Watts, elected officials, housing authority bureaucrats and residents all took turns swinging sledgehammers at a 1950s cinder-block structure to mark the demolition of Jordan Downs. The event marked the first phase in the remaking of this public housing development into an “urban village,” with planned green spaces, a retail center and mixed-income housing.

But after the photo-op, inside Jordan Downs’ deteriorating World War II-era buildings, plenty of residents felt wary. “They keep talking about how good this place is going to be and how everyone will be included,” one longtime resident told me a few weeks afterward. “But I want to know: Is there really going to be a place for me here? Or will they want me out? Do they have room for me in the new Jordan Downs?” His voice grew louder as he spoke those last three words, then he added, “I’m not so sure.”

He’s not alone. Current residents have a long list of concerns about the redevelopment, and their biggest one is this: What is really going to happen to this community of 2,300 people once these buildings get torn down around them?

For decades, Jordan Downs and two other public housing developments dominated the landscape and reputation of Watts. As a newly minted social worker at nearby Martin Luther King hospital in 1980, I was admonished to visit the projects only when accompanied by a Los Angeles police officer — advice I promptly discarded. What I discovered there was a community of families — strong, troubled, proud and interconnected — many bearing the scars of poverty and drugs. The epidemic of crack cocaine decimated families as gangs fought to control the drug’s production, distribution and sales. Rates of death and incarceration soared.

Today Watts is different. First as a social worker and then as a researcher and nonprofit facilitator, I watched it transform. After a gang truce in 1992 and with further effort by the Watts Gang Task Force starting in 2005, violence and crime began to abate. Cross-cultural conflicts that surfaced as Latinos took up residence ultimately eased; Jordan Downs, per 2010 Census data, is now 64% Latino and 36% African American. Community organizations turned their focus to new issues such as improving local schools and supporting the reintegration of long-incarcerated men.

Jordan Downs is emblematic of Watts as it now exists: multiracial, multicultural, multi-generational. There are newly arrived immigrants as well as families who have lived there for three generations. Black and brown children come of age together. “You can see Jordan Downs in the babies that are playing at the community center,” Lee Sprewell, a peace ambassador at Shields for Families, told me. “They have a brown mama and a black daddy. We are all one family.”

The conflicts that remain are largely the disagreements that occur in any neighborhood setting. At a recent Project Fatherhood community meeting, I heard residents complain about trash that hadn’t been picked up and the need to control loud music and noise after dark. Meantime, public- and private-sector investment has started trickling in to Watts. Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson chose Watts for their healthy fast food experiment, LocoL. A Frank Gehry-designed campus for the Children’s Institute will break ground in 2018.

This supposed “rebirth” of Watts just adds to the growing unease around Jordan Downs. Many residents worry that the neighborhood’s affordable real estate and proximity to both downtown and Los Angeles International Airport render it ripe for gentrification. The watchword from community activists builds on Ted Watkins’ legacy, “Don’t move. Improve.” Still, residents are fearful that they will lose control over their community, or be displaced entirely. “What if people want to buy up houses at cheap prices and fix them up,” one resident said. “Is Watts going to be another East L.A.?”

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, or HACLA, has made extensive promises and projections about the remade Jordan Downs. But little has gone according to plan so far. Due to bureaucratic snafus, HACLA’s application for $30 million in federal grants got rejected — twice. HACLA needs more money for the next phases of construction, but the agency hasn’t identified funding sources yet.

Contractors also promised that there would be construction jobs for residents and the “hard to hire” — primarily the formerly incarcerated — but there is no way to ensure that happens.

Adding to the anxiety: The formerly industrial lot where construction is beginning was horribly contaminated with lead and required a massive clean-up. High lead levels also were found at area schools as recently as September. Mothers fear that the 300 kids at Jordan Downs could be exposed to more toxins as demolition and construction blow debris into the air.

But the central worry is that families will simply be pushed out. The new Jordan Downs development will be bigger overall — 1,410 units, if fully built — but it’s uncertain that it will contain as many subsidized apartments (700) as exist now. Phase 1 contains just 250 subsidized units. HACLA has handed out “right to remain” certificates, but everyone I talk to is aware these are simply pieces of paper, not legally binding agreements.

Jordan Downs must be redeveloped. The buildings are decrepit, the surrounding area underutilized and the soil hazardous. However, in the rush to create a new urban village, it is crucial to remember that a community already exists here. Residents need to be systematically involved in the redevelopment process, from planning committees to project review. The number of affordable housing units must be revisited, with legally binding guarantees of 1-to-1 replacement and assurances that there will be homes for all current residents. Town hall meetings and photo opportunities are not enough.

The redevelopment of Jordan Downs has been hailed as a project that will change the landscape of Watts. While the addition of affordable housing and green spaces is something that nearly all residents desire, the landscape of Watts does not need to be changed — it needs to be strengthened.

Jorja Leap is a professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-founder of the Watts Leadership Institute.

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