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Watts New? : Reopening of Historic Red Car Station as Museum and DWP Office Seen as Symbol of Hope, Renewal

Times Staff Writer

Eighty-five years after it was constructed, the once-deteriorating Watts train station was reborn Thursday.

More than 100 people gathered at 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue to celebrate the grand reopening of the wood-frame structure, which will operate as a Department of Water and Power customer service office and a mini-museum of Watts history.

Although the station will no longer serve as a passenger platform or ticket booth, city officials and Watts residents hope that the newly restored national historic landmark will serve as a symbol of continuity, hope and renewal for a neighborhood that has seen more than its share of hard times.

The station, once a main junction for the city’s famed Red Cars, is located about 90 feet from the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach light-rail line that is scheduled to open next year.

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‘A New Era’

“It’s more than an historical occasion--it is a magical occasion,” said the Rev. Thomas Kilgore, a Community Redevelopment Agency commissioner. “If you listen closely, you can almost hear the rumbling of the Red Cars. The railroad served as a catalyst for staking a community here . . . and this will herald a new era for Watts.”

Mayor Tom Bradley waxed nostalgic about the days five decades ago when he boarded the train at the Watts station, sometimes sneaking on without the 15-cent fare.

“All of us are going to be able to relive those days when we rode the old Red Cars--some of us free,” he said to loud laughter. “I won’t expose you; the statute of limitations has run out, so you can fully confess it to your next-door neighbors.

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“Those were great days. Those days of glory are going to return, and we are going to be at the heart of the action right here at the Watts train station,” the mayor said.

After the ceremony, at a reception at which croissants and kiwis were served, Bradley explained that he was not advocating that riders sneak onto the new train without paying.

“In those days, there were some of us who didn’t have the 15 cents to ride the Red Car,” he said. “I think that those who need to travel from their work to their home (these days) will be able to afford the fare.”

The brown, single-story station, restored to its original exterior design by the CRA for $700,000, was built in an era when farmers harvested cabbage down the block and the ethnically mixed neighborhood was known as a place where a working man could buy a home for $1 down and $1 a week.

Sixty years later, the train station was the only structure that remained intact when stores along 103rd Street burned during the Watts riots.

In the years since, a shopping center, a health center and 458 units of affordable housing have been constructed in the neighborhood with the assistance of $32 million in redevelopment funds. But the historic station has been largely vacant and run down since the demise of the Red Cars, the electric rail system that carried commuters and tourists around the Los Angeles Basin until it was taken out of service almost 30 years ago.

At Thursday’s ceremony, city officials paid tribute to 70-year Watts resident Freita Shaw Johnson, who spearheaded a two-decade community effort to restore the station.

Johnson, a retired music director, said she hoped that the refurbished station and the adjacent transit line will lead to “economic growth and jobs and . . . give a better picture of our area.”

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Officials, who also called the rail line a stimulus for commerce, stressed during the ceremony that the gated complex that will contain the old station, a new light-rail platform and parking will be brightly lit and monitored by closed-circuit cameras to provide safety for rail riders.

However, several area residents interviewed Thursday cautioned that 24-hour security service will be necessary to avert problems.

“If they get enough security it might work,” said Angelo Machicote, 22. “But just like security has guns, the gang-bangers have guns.”


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