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Ashes to Pearls: Housing Complex Glistens in Watts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Julia and Tom Baker, the memories will never die.

Residents of Watts for most of their lives, the two vividly remember the days of the 1965 uprising: National Guardsmen marched through the streets, fires burned out of control and the sound of gunfire echoed through the night. Four-hundred buildings were burned and looted. Thirty-four people were killed.

“It was just something terrible to see,” said Tom Baker, 49, holding his 4-year-old nephew, Lamar. “I couldn’t tell others (about it) without tears coming to my eyes.”

Twenty-five years after the riots, the Bakers stood in front of a sparkling, new townhouse, watching as dignitaries mingled with residents at the opening ceremony for Westminister Park Plaza, the largest complex of low- and modest-income housing to be built in Watts in decades.

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The 130-unit project has attracted more than 2,000 applicants who, like the Bakers, hope to move into one of the apartments next month when they become available for occupancy.

“It’s something we need in this community,” said Watts resident Dorothy Abney. “It’s great.”

Politicians and community leaders say Westminster Park Plaza is symbolic of changes being made in the community, changes that already have been been dubbed the “Watts Renaissance.”

“The ashes of 1965 have turned into the pearl of 1990,” said the Rev. Thomas Kilgore, a Community Redevelopment Agency commissioner. “Watts is about to spring across the threshold of a new era. Its long isolation is almost over.”

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Mayor Tom Bradley praised the CRA and the Westminister Neighborhood Assn., a nonprofit community group, for their work in developing the complex.

“It wasn’t easy to convince people that affordable housing could be built in Watts,” Bradley said.

The complex was financed mostly by a $3.5-million loan from Wells Fargo Bank and a $5-million low-interest CRA loan. The $5 million was channeled through the Watts Redevelopment Project, an arm of the CRA that focuses primarily on improving conditions in Watts. Private investors put up $1.5 million.

Inspired by Dr. E. Grace Payne, executive director of the Westminster Neighborhood Assn., the $10-million complex on Maie Avenue and 92nd Street will offer low- to moderate-income housing. Monthly rents start at $312 for the one- to five-bedroom units.

But the goal in creating the complex was not only to provide affordable housing but to build an attractive complex that would instill in residents a sense of community pride, Payne said. The complex houses a day-care center and plans are under way to develop a youth center and Neighborhood Watch program.

“Just constructing buildings doesn’t create a community,” Payne said.

Applicants were questioned by members of the neighborhood association about their home life, friends and goals and asked to detail their feelings about gangs and drugs.

Applicants like 19-year-old Duane Abney didn’t seem to mind the questioning.

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“I’d like a place where my daughter can grow up and not have to worry about being shot, " Abney said, cradling 5-month-old Me-Lesa in his arms. “I didn’t mind.”

As part of the rebirth of Watts, several other major projects are planned.

Construction will soon begin on 116 housing units on a strip of land next to the landmark Watts Towers, said investor David V. Adams.

Councilman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Watts, predicted that other projects will further spur the resurgence in Watts. “The community is on the brink of a major economic expansion driven by the new light-rail line and the Century Freeway,” she said.

William Brown, CRA project manager, said that $85,000 was recently spent to refurbish the Watts Towers and that plans are under way to develop an art center and studios called the Cultural Crescent, designed to make Watts a haven for art and creativity.

But for the Bakers, a new home will be the start of their own renaissance. With a 1-year-old grandson and their 4-year-old nephew to raise, they are trying to get away from the drug dealing that goes on near their Wilmington Avenue home.

“That’s the one reason we want to move,” Tom Baker said.


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