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Watts Stories : Photographer Captures Another Side of Life at Imperial Courts

Life in the apartments, gang circles and cliques of Imperial Courts is one of hopelessness, poverty and nihilism to outsiders, and to some who live in the project. But there is more to this picture.

Beyond the cliched images of gun-toting gangsters, unwed teen-age mothers and high school dropouts are the faces of people trying to get by. Some aspire to move beyond the run-down facades and grassless front yards. Others find themselves drawn there to visit family members or to hang out in a community where, despite problems, everyone knows everyone else.

Regardless, they are all individuals whose lives transcend the faceless stereotypes of life in Watts.

For one month in 1993, Dana Lixenberg, a 29-year-old Dutch photographer, visited Imperial Courts. She hung out with the OGs--original gangsters--and young gang members, the mothers, sons and daughters, listened to residents’ stories and captured portraits of a different side of Imperial Courts.

“I wanted to show something that I didn’t think was seen before. Through doing it, I just took what was given to me,” Lixenberg said.

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“Coming to Imperial Courts, at first it looks like life isn’t really moving much, but underneath that, there’s a lot of pain and a lot of passion, too,” she said.

Lixenberg’s initial plan was to photograph gang members in the area, but she decided to focus on residents in the low-rise housing project after meeting Tyrone Thomas--known in the neighborhood as Tony Bogard--of Hands Across Watts, a nonprofit organization formed to encourage the 1992 gang truce. Thomas was killed in a shootout last month in Imperial Courts.

“Tony was real skeptical about me photographing people. I don’t think he wanted them to be exploited,” Lixenberg recalled. “He really grilled me and asked me what good it would do for them and his people. I couldn’t say. . . .

“But each day I took another picture of another person, I learned something different.”

*

When he closes his eyes sometimes, Andre Fountain can picture himself riding the horses in the 131st Street stables, as he did when he was a child. From age 4 he was jostled atop the horses, his father hollering instructions on how to hang on. At 12, he was breaking them in and would go home to 117th Street, just blocks away from the projects, covered in dust.

“They started calling me Dusty after that,” he said.

The riding ended in 1983 when Fountain, then 16, was shot in the back after an argument and left paralyzed from the waist down. Gangrene required doctors to amputate his legs in 1988.

Dusty isn’t too fond of the projects, although he occasionally comes up from Downey, where he lives with his sister, to visit family and hang out. “You don’t have no yard and can’t have no pets” in Imperial Courts, he said. “And I don’t trust everybody over there.”

He was a member of the Seven Boy Crips when he was young. Being part of a gang was part of the life. But that life is over now, he says.

“I try to tell these young brothers to go to school and get an education, and they say: ‘You didn’t go to school.’ But I say: ‘Don’t you want to be better?’ ”

*

Lixenberg spent entire days with residents, rarely prying into their lives, taking what they said at face value and observing the rest, she said.

“Some of the guys, they spent a lot of time changing clothes and dressing up and just sitting around,” she remembered. “They acted like nothing bothered them, but it always seemed like they cared but couldn’t let it show.”

*

“If I ever come up in life, I’ll move my kids out for their safety, but I’d (come) back because this is all I know,” said Grady Earl (One Love) Gordon, 30.

“I’m an OG from over here. I have to stay here for my homeboys,” he explains. “This is my family here. One for one and one for all. But my kids, they don’t need to stay.”

Gordon wants his children--James, 12, and Deanna, 5--to be protected from the sorts of tragedies that have surrounded him. The worst was the death of his mother in 1989, shot in the head by a bullet that Gordon fired at his stepfather.

When he mentions his mother’s death, Gordon’s head hangs low with guilt. He loved his mother dearly, he said. He was trying to protect her from a man who Gordon said repeatedly beat her. But she jumped in front of the man just as Gordon fired at him. He is on parole for the incident, he said.

“Life here ain’t different, it’s just harder,” said Gordon, who moved to Imperial Courts with his family when he was 5. “We’re all just trying to survive.”

*

“The media (were) like intruders,” said Lixenberg, who watched a stream of reporters flow into the projects to get reactions from residents last April as Los Angeles awaited the verdicts after the second Rodney G. King beating trial.

“None of the media spent time there,” she said. “They would interview people for two minutes, but only show little bits and pieces. No more than that.”

*

Velma Hill recalls the Imperial Courts of the 1970s with fondness. There were playgrounds, teen dances, roller-skating parties and neighbors concerned about one another.

“It was nice. People cared about people,” said Hill, 31, known as Coco in the community. “Now, they just care about themselves.”

There should be more activities for people, better playgrounds for the children and a curfew to keep people from being idle on the streets, she said.

“It’s never the place you live at that’s the problem. It’s the people,” she said.

Hill admits that her views are somewhat old-fashioned. It comes from her upbringing. One of 14 children, Hill grew up with her siblings and both parents in two apartments in Imperial Courts, connected by a door that was cut out to join them. The girls slept on one side, the boys on the other.

Hill realizes that her family was an anomaly. Not for its size, but because both of her parents were there.

“I was lucky. Some people weren’t blessed with a mama and daddy; we were,” she said. “Even though we didn’t have the best house, I had Christmas every year, Easter and Bible study with my mama and daddy.

“There wasn’t nothing my dad wouldn’t give us. And there wasn’t nothing he wouldn’t do for any other kid in these projects,” she said of her father, who died in November. “Mr. Hill was always doing something for somebody.”

*

Edward Vander is better known as Peanut in the neighborhood around East 114th Street. His freckled face stands out when he passes through the streets. But he doesn’t come by too often now that he lives in Long Beach. Peanut, 19, doesn’t like the projects, said his grandmother, Cora Webb.

“With all these gangs, things were just getting too dangerous,” Webb said. “He wanted to get away from that.”

Still, the tattoo that says PJW Crip on his right forearm is a constant reminder of his old stomping ground.

*

“When I first walked in there, I think I represented something negative to them,” Lixenberg said of residents’ initial impressions of her.

Lixenberg grew up in Amsterdam and has lived and worked in New York City since 1989. She came to Los Angeles in 1993 to photograph Watts with a grant from the government of Holland. Even with its problems, Amsterdam has nothing comparable to people’s experiences in Watts, Lixenberg said.

“I come from a very different culture and country, and my life is so different. For them, I’m someone from a really faraway place,” Lixenberg said. “But it was important for them not to label me, just as I didn’t want to label them.”

*

Inside the Korean-owned market he will manage when it opens on 114th Street across from Imperial Courts, Uzzi leans back on the laminated counter after a day of installing shelves and building walls and muses about life in “the Courts.”

He’s hopped around among cities in Los Angeles County--Pomona, Gardena, Altadena--but he has always come back to the projects.

“I came back because it’s Watts, this is where I’m from,” he said, as if the reason was obvious. “I have my friends, my family. I can’t never forget where I’m from.”

To prove his point, Uzzi pulls down his sawdust-covered T-shirt to reveal a fading tattoo, but an indelible reminder of his roots: Mr. Uzzi/PJW.

Uzzi, 31, whose real name is Herbert Taylor, got his street name because he could throw a lightning punch that could end any fistfight.

Uzzi pointed out, however, that he first got the name Uzziah from a cellmate in jail who saw him repeatedly reading the second book of Kings in the Old Testament.

There are few material things that Uzzi holds dear, he said. One, especially, is his discharge card from a three-year parole--six days after his birthday.

“Best present I ever got,” he said. “Ain’t no way I’m going back.”

*

Jessica Patterson grew up in Imperial Courts, but there was no love lost when she left in September to live with her aunt on Crenshaw Boulevard.

She had no support system when she lived there, and after her mother died in December, 1992, she didn’t see much point in staying.

“It just seemed when my mom died, there was no one living for me, so I had to live for myself,” said Jessica, 16. “I had to move on to try and make my way.”

She drops by Imperial Courts a couple of times a week to visit her aunt and some of her 15 siblings who live there. But the visits are short. A couple of hours is too long sometimes.

“I don’t like it there very much,” she says.

Her feelings are not unusual. For many who leave the projects, there is no turning back.

What Jessica wants is an education and a chance to be a model or a nurse.

“I couldn’t get it there,” she said. “I hope I can get it now.”

*

The last series of pictures Lixenberg took were of Tony Bogard. Bogard was skeptical until the end and was the hardest person to photograph, Lixenberg said.

“I photographed him at his house (on 64th Street) and he stood really still, like a sculpture. I don’t know if he was shy or not. But it was some of the best photos I got.”

*

Bogard, a gangbanger-turned-peacemaker, was considered a leader to many in Imperial Courts, where he grew up. But not everyone agreed with his approach to ending the killings in the neighborhood.

Bogard realized the danger in what he did--he carried a gun and wore a bulletproof vest. But he wasn’t wearing the vest when he was killed in a shootout, allegedly by two members of his own gang--the PJ Watts Crips.

“Can’t nobody take Tony’s place walking through these projects and trying to keep the peace,” said Cheryl Wilborne, a resident of Imperial Courts who knew Bogard since he was young.

“He wasn’t perfect, but he was a role model for some people here,” she said. “That was all we had. But one of his own had to take that away.”

*

Lixenberg admits that a month was not enough time to come close to understanding Imperial Courts or any community. She is not sure how long it would take.

“The difference now is when I hear of South-Central or L.A., for the first time I can say I was allowed to see a part of people’s lives.”


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