Opinion: Council District 15: Watts and Not-Watts

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The portion of L.A.’s Council District 15 usually described as Watts consists of two distinct parts. There is the actual Watts: the formerly independent municipality nestled among such Southeast County cities as Lynwood, South Gate and Huntington Park; the little square jutting to the east on maps of Los Angeles that makes it look like the big city reached out and grabbed it, as it really did in a 1926 consolidation, after Watts’ artesian wells ran dry.

This is the famous and notorious place where in 1965 Angelenos learned their corner of the world was not immune from racial tension or urban race riots. This is the home of several dense federal housing developments, the birthplace of deadly street gangs and a landmark gang truce, the locus of repeated urban failures, followed by pangs of rebirth and hope and always, it seems, new heartbreaks. This is where to find Simon Rodia’s famous towers and the late Ted WatkinsWatts Labor Community Action Committee, originator of countless strategies to combat poverty, inadequate housing and challenges to the human spirit. This city-within-a-city is bounded, almost literally, on the north by DWP high-tension lines; on the east, except for a few buffering unincorporated streets, by the railroad ditch that is the Alameda Corridor; and on the south officially by Imperial Highway but practically speaking by the noisy, exhaust-spewing Century or (take your pick) Glenn Anderson Freeway, also known as the I-105. The Metro Blue Line runs through it, on the same route where the very last Pacific Electric Red Car ran from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach in 1961.


And then there is Not-Watts, a section of South Los Angeles, next door to Watts, just to the west of Central Avenue, repeatedly carved up among City Council districts in part because it lacks the history or identity of Watts. What’s it called? Good question. It’s part of a tract of formerly unincorporated county land that was annexed to Los Angeles, as Green Meadows, at the same time as the Watts consolidation for no real purpose other than the fact that the new bit of L.A. had to be physically connected to the rest of the city. The Los Angeles Times Mapping L.A. project divides the area west of Watts into vertical stripes: Green Meadows, then Broadway-Manchester, then, west past the Harbor Freeway, Vermont Vista. Those designations are as good as any, but only the southern third or so of each of them is part of the 15th District. The city applies other names as well: Century Cove, for example. But, really now. Cove? Where?

If Watts is the stepchild of Council District 15 -- a district dominated in elections and at budget time by San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles, some nine miles to the south -- Not-Watts is the orphan. In the redistricting process currently underway, you can bet that actual Watts will remain untouched. For all its troubles, it remains an icon. No one would dare divide it among City Council districts. No one ever has. But you can also bet that houses, streets and blocks west of Central in adjacent Not-Watts will be moved around on the city chessboard, among districts 15, 8, and perhaps 9. They always are, every 10 years. Residents complain, but to little avail. A measure of their lack of clout, and perhaps the final insult, was the construction in the midst of the area the I-110/I-105 interchange, which wiped out hundreds of homes.

In addition to his main San Pedro campaign headquarters, Assemblyman Warren Furutani has a Watts office on Central Avenue, and that presence, and the canvassing his campaign workers do from it, is widely believed to be a big reason he made it into the Jan. 17 City Council runoff instead of San Pedro community activist Jayme Wilson or labor-funded city firefighters union chief Pat McOsker. The Watts (and Not-Watts) African American and Latino vote plays a strong role in district elections. But it has never been enough to outflank the power of San Pedro. Furutani, if elected, would be the first council member from the district not to live in, and have his base in, San Pedro, at least since the end of World War II (Furutani lives about halfway between Watts and the Port, in Harbor Gateway). His opponent, LAPD officer Joe Buscaino, is San Pedro-born and bred.

Can a San Pedro-weighted district give Watts and its neighboring communities the attention they deserve? It’s hard to see how. The needs are great, and rewards for a council member can seem sparse when compared with the campaign funding, contractor interest and prestige that go with representing the Port.

Watts is in the midst of attempted renewals and reinventions that require the rapt attention and support of a City Council member. On the eastern border of the district, the Jordan Downs federal public housing project is slated to be reborn, in theory, as an urban village with commercial projects, job opportunities and substantially less of the depressing same-ness that often helps turn such complexes (along with poverty) into havens for gangs and violence. The city is trying to reclaim an adjacent parcel of unincorporated county brownfield as part of the project. The redevelopment is in the hands of the controversial Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.

Next door, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s failing David Starr Jordan High School is being split, and supposedly rescued, by three private nonprofit operators. Along the community’s southern border, Imperial Courts and Nickerson Gardens provide housing, but not always hope, to thousands of residents.

To the west, across Central Avenue, the boundary of the non-Watts part of the district is defined by Compton Creek. On the map the creek forms an elegant curve southward at 108th and Central before becoming one of the main downriver tributaries of the Los Angeles River. In the minds of environmental restorationists, it forms a future segment of an urban greenbelt that cleanses runoff and shelters wildlife. In the hopes of economic developers, it forms at its elbow, where it crosses Lanzit Avenue and the still-active Union Pacific tracks, an imagined home to a green technology center where workers assemble electric cars. But on the ground, it is for now a concrete-lined, trash-strewn dumping ground in dire need of a clean-up and a little love and respect.


The non-Watts section also features the too-active Southeast Division of the LAPD. Plus there is Locke High School, built in part as a response to the 1965 violence or, more to the point, to the systemic deprivation that caused it. But Locke, like Jordan, failed its students and is now hoping for rebirth as part of the Green Dot experiment, documented here for the Times editorial page by Karin Klein. Across the line, in unincorporated Willowbrook but very much a part of the Watts community, sits another answer to years of neglect -- and another heartbreaking failure, and another attempt at reinvention and renewal: Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center.

This little section of the 15th District provides enough challenges for a platoon of council members. But at least up to this point in history, it hasn’t supplied enough votes or enough campaign money to counterbalance the attention focused down the freeway, where container ships bring billions of dollars in goods to the United States, and where the sons and daughters of immigrant fisherman, stevedores and longshore workers organize, campaign and vote in impressive numbers -- and elect council members with San Pedro’s needs in the forefront of their minds.

A comment from X’Zavierr Garland on the Times’ Mapping L.A. project Watts page: ‘There are plenty of good kids in this mad city but they just lack the resources and opportunity. A lot of great things and people come from my neighborhood. Just give us a chance people.’

This portion of the area west of Watts, shown above, is designated in the Times’ Mapping L.A. project as Green Meadows. Click on the map for a better view, and for statistics and comments from residents. Only the portion south of 107th Street is part of the 15th Council District. This section includes the Compton Creek bend and the Lanzit industrial site. Commenter Mike wrote, on Nov. 15, ‘you dont kno our struggle its not as bad as it used to be!’

Further west is Broadway-Manchester, shown above; the 15th District begins at 108th Street, except for the few blocks between Main and Olive, which start at 107th. Again, click on the map for views, statistics and comments. Commenter Donna Carson wrote in April 2010: ‘My father built our first home at 249 W. 119th St. in about 1946. My maternal grandparents lived around the corner on 118th PL. and several of my aunts and uncles had starter-homes in the neighborhood. Having a strong extended family living close by was an important part of my childhood. I have wonderful memories of those years and are glad to see that these homes are still being lived in and I often imagine the families living their now.’

Furthest west, past the Harbor Freeway, is Vermont Vista. The 15th District begins at 110th Street. Click on the map for better views, plus statistics and comments. Commenter LadyBugg77 wrote in August 2009: ‘I just wish we could get our local public servants to devote the same resources to keeping our community safe and beautiful as in the west and beach areas.’



CD 15: Endorsements and the Jan. 17 runoff

CD 15: About the district

CD 15: Questions, and frustration

CD 15: Voting now underway

CD 15: When Warren Furutani met Joe Buscaino


-- Robert Greene