This is Charcoal Alley.
Near the middle of this stretch of 103rd Street between Success Avenue and Grape Street, barber Robert F. Blue settles into a chair along a wall of the otherwise empty Style Rite Barber Shop, patiently waiting to dispense the day’s portion of shaves and jheri curls and high-top fades.
A few doors east, Bobby Griffin peers down from the stool behind the counter of his chicken shop and informs a small girl that his business is shuttered for the day, that her mom can pick up a tender fryer as soon as he and some workmen repair a busted back window.
Several yards from the corner of Anzac Avenue, Melvin Hill and Roy Allen hunch over the front of Hill’s older-model pickup truck, tinkering to no avail with metal innards that have been on the blink all day.
All along the street, a dull serenity pervades the midday heat. It is a calm familiar to most communities, one rooted in routine and summer dog days.
But here, it is also rooted in chaos.
“I remember when this place looked like a war zone,” says Allen, straightening up and stepping around to the side of the pickup truck. “They burned everything. Everything had to go.”
Twenty-five years ago, this strip of 103rd Street became a focal point for black fury as angry Watts residents sacked and torched the area during the 1965 riots. Stores were gutted, their goods strewn throughout the street. With the debris lay the bloody bodies of people shot down by snipers and law enforcement officers.
Nearly every building from Success Avenue to Grape Street was reduced to rubble. So great was the charred damage that the strip was dubbed Charcoal Alley.
But 25 years have brought immense change to this portion of 103rd Street. The target of a development boom after the riots, Charcoal Alley has become a hub of hope for the troubled district.
Immaculate low-income housing complexes, community centers and office buildings have risen from the ashes of the burned storefronts. A massive shopping center named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits at the corner of 103rd Street and Compton Avenue, ringed with Burger Kings, Sav-On drug stores and other commercial newcomers to Watts.
Across the street from the shopping center is the Watts Health Center, the sole medical facility in Watts proper. A U.S. Post Office is located just up the street, a few blocks away from the new Metro Rail Blue Line platform.
The city-run Community Redevelopment Agency, which designated the strip of 103rd Street one of its development project areas after the riots, is responsible for much of the improvement, with help from several community organizations.
The CRA has since begun making preparations to vastly expand the boundaries of the project--creating the city’s largest redevelopment zone. The plan has drawn criticism from some residents who fear it will make the community so commercially attractive that they will be forced out.
CRA critics also contend the development in the current redevelopment zone along 103rd has progressed slower than in other project areas throughout the city. But agency officials say they are committed to fully upgrading Charcoal Alley--as well as all of Watts.
“We wish we could do more,” says William E. Brown, who supervises CRA development in the 107-acre Watts project area. “We don’t want to tear the fabric of the community by building too much too fast. Still, that area has come a very long way.”
Many Watts residents agree. They note that the developments have provided more residents with sorely needed jobs, goods and services.
“A lot of good things really did come out of the riot,” says Abbie Long, 73, who has lived in Watts since 1940. “There was nothing really around for us. Black folks now have a better chance of getting a job in the shopping center or something. What could you do before? Shine shoes.”
Even with the new developments, however, many older Watts residents find themselves occasionally pining for the Watts of old.
“All up and down here,” says Hill, “there were a bunch of little storefront-type shops. We had all kinds of things here. There were a lot of problems around here, but this was our community. We still loved it.”
Near the corner of Wilmington, he recalls, sat Nat Diamond’s furniture emporium, where most of the people in the neighborhood went for sofas, lamps and area rugs. Then there was the Largo Theater, a second home to the children who would pack its rows to catch the early showings of “Frankenstein” and Abbott and Costello.
Shoe stores, hardware outlets, pharmacies, five-and-dime stores--they were all there.
“And they all had to go,” says Hill.
On the third day of the rioting, they went. Stirred up by reports that blacks on the outskirts of Watts were looting and burning stores, residents within the district lashed out at their own neighborhood.
A grocery store on Compton Avenue and 103rd Street was the first to be hit.
“I remember seeing mobs, about 15 or 20 in a mob, just running down the street with food and other stuff from the grocery store,” says Blue, the barber. “At first, it was just the grocery store on fire. That’s where it started. Then it just kept going in this direction.”
Blue says Style Rite was spared because its owner is black. Few black-owned businesses were damaged.
Eventually, the anger waned, and the rioting passed. Many of the old shop owners moved their businesses out of the area, opting to relocate rather than rebuild. The remnants of their shops were razed, and soon rebuilding began.
Twenty-five years later, many along Charcoal Alley believe the area has at last shed its legacy of violence and despair. Even the strip’s nickname is fading into faint memory. For many, the infamous Charcoal Alley is now just plain 103rd Street.
“Charcoal Alley?” queries Bobby Griffin, perplexed by even the mention of the name. “That’s not what people in Watts call this place, at least not now. They may have during the riots, but I have never heard anybody use that. This is just our community.”
This is Charcoal Alley.