It wasn't until 19 years after the Watts riots that the area's first supermarket, The Boys, opened to the delight of residents who had long clamored for a full-service grocery.
But the market--a centerpiece of the community's successful battle to attract quality businesses--was looted during April-May's civil unrest and has been boarded up since.
And now, much to the surprise and anger of some residents, the market's owners want to reopen it in a few months as a "super warehouse" offering lower-priced goods but lacking amenities such as grocery baggers, money orders and some check-cashing services.
"They look at the people of Watts as some junk trash they can heap anything on," scoffed longtime Watts resident McKever Toler. "We had to fight like hell to get the store in here. Why should we have to force them (to open a full-service market)?"
The discount warehouse arrangement also has its supporters, including longtime Watts activist Sweet Alice Harris, who say the store would be a practical alternative for a community that includes five public housing projects.
"Poor people cannot afford high prices," Harris said. "I am speaking of the majority of the community, people who have children."
Nevertheless, some community leaders question the motives of The Boys' parent company, Food 4 Less. They point to a full-page newspaper ad the company ran one day after the spring riots, stating its intention to reopen stores owned by Food 4 Less that were burned or looted.
A recent protest by the Watts branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People drew about 80 residents who questioned whether the new store will serve the needs of the area's estimated 800 senior citizens and restore jobs provided by the prior market. Davis L. Rodgers, president of the Watts branch, may recruit other NAACP branches to participate in the protest, and said a reopened warehouse store may be picketed.
"We've made beaucoup dollars for this company, and now they're telling us we don't deserve for them to come back," Rodgers said. "They've already shown us what they think."
However, Food 4 Less President George Golleher said he thinks residents will appreciate the benefits of the new high-volume store, with prices 15% to 20% lower than at The Boys.
The new market--featuring more check stands as well as expanded produce, meat and deli departments--will provide the same quality of food as its predecessor, he said.
Although express lanes, grocery baggers and money orders will be things of the past, shoppers will still be able to get help bagging groceries if they request it, he said.
The store is expected to gross as much as $28 million annually, twice what The Boys store grossed last year, and offer 132 jobs with an average $11-per-hour wage, Golleher said. (The store employed 80 before the riots.) Employees of the Watts market who did not accept reassignments to other stores after the unrest are welcome to reapply, he said.
"I am very confident that when the store reopens it will be outrageously successful and welcomed by the citizens of Watts," Golleher said. "We know we'll double our sales and double the number of people coming to the center. Everyone will prosper."
Food 4 Less officials point to their success in Huntington Park, where The Boys market was converted to a warehouse operation after being looted in the riots. Since opening day in late June, the store's sales have tripled and the number of employees has doubled compared to the previous market, Golleher said.
Reopening the Watts store, which is in the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center on East 103rd Street, has been delayed because Food 4 Less is opening a new type of market there and must get new building plans approved by the city, he said. Golleher expects the plans to be approved in the next two weeks and remodeling to take six to eight weeks. The Watts market sustained losses of $958,000 in the April-May rioting, he said.
Still, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Watts, said the company should not move forward without acknowledging the community's wishes. Of 45 residents who attended a July public meeting organized by Flores' office, 27 favored a full-service market while six supported a warehouse outlet. The other residents wanted another grocery store to replace The Boys.
The Community Redevelopment Agency, which serves as the landlord for the property because it is in a redevelopment area, also supports the push for a full-service market and is trying to mediate the dispute between residents and Food 4 Less.
Although Golleher said he is willing to speak with the market's opponents, he believes there is strong community support for a Food 4 Less outlet. The opposition is limited to a small group of strident residents, he said, noting that the warehouse store has the backing of longtime activist Harris.
However, Harris' critics say she was swayed by the company's recent donation of a 15-passenger van to her organization, Parents of Watts. Harris and Golleher bristle at the suggestion that the company bought her vote, noting that The Boys has supported her programs for several years.
Golleher defended the company's commitment to the community, noting that The Boys was one of the few supermarket chains that opened stores in the inner city after the 1965 Watts riots.
After the recent unrest, he said, the company donated more than $1 million in food at its stores throughout South-Central, including the Watts location. And Food 4 Less plans to hire an African-American contractor to remodel the store. "I shudder when I hear the community feels we haven't responded," Golleher said. "We always have and we always will."